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A measure of a life

Dr. Phil Gilbert and his wife, Cathy.

They stood up one after the other.

His grandson went first. Junior regaled the funeral service with a winding story about a fancy car and looking at big houses with his grandfather. It ended with the pair of best friends sharing a metaphorical elbow jab and wink as they told Doc’s wife, Cathy, of their adventures and the imaginary new car in the driveway.

And it continued.

Fellow elder at Central Christian Church Walter Rice said Doc was his best friend. He spoke about his leadership in the church and their close friendship. He joked about the efforts Doc took to fix his golf slice.

His stepson Tad Allen lovingly and tearfully confessed to the mess Doc inherited in bringing the families together 33 years ago. How Doc had loved them all completely.

Dr. Phil Sewell met Doc in the library of the Palmer College of Chiropractic in the 70s. That chance meeting led to a long friendship that Sewell spoke of with honor and love. The two remained best friends for decades, each practicing chiropractic in Southern Indiana. Doc’s corny sense of humor would be on display when they were together; he would tell people the two friends were a ‘pair-a-docs.’

Washington chiropractor Dr. Frank Bowling broke down as he said farewell to Doc. Motioning to the open casket, he simply said he wanted to curl up in it with his best friend; he didn’t know how to go on without him.

In the days after Doc’s abrupt passing at the age of 73, his stepson, Kelly Allen, took on the task of calling the acquaintances, friends, and family on Doc’s phone to let them know. From Canada to Florida, many said the same thing. “He was my best friend.”

People passing by his chiropractic office continue to share their love for Doc often bringing his daughter, Leigh, who works at the reception desk, to tears during the day.

Another local chiropractor broke the news to this writer with the words, “I just found out one of my best friends died.”

The weight of Doc’s life could be measured in those who loved him and called him their best friend.

Cathy wished Doc had known how people cherished him.

“I wish he could have seen the number of people that really loved him and respected him,” Cathy said. “Because he didn’t have that inward peace. He had peace of knowing the Lord and where he was going. But his self-value…even though he was cocky. People didn’t really know how he was hurting.”

Obituaries only give a vignette into a person’s life.

Dr. Phillip George Gilbert, 73, of Huntingburg, passed away at 6:07 p.m. on Wednesday, September 29, 2021, in the emergency room of Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in Jasper. He was born August 18, 1948, in Windsor, Canada, to Claire and Joyce (Greene) Gilbert who both preceded him in death. He was united in marriage to Cathy A. Kelly on June 11, 1988, in Huntingburg. Phil graduated from the Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1977 where he received his Doctor of Chiropractic degree. Dr. Gilbert worked for many years as a chiropractor at The Wellness Center in Huntingburg. He served as a sergeant in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He was an avid golfer and bicyclist and was a member of the Huntingburg V.F.W. Post #2366 and Central Christian Church where he was an Elder of the church. He is survived by his wife, Cathy Gilbert of Huntingburg; five children, Stephanie (Michael) Jerstad of Millersburg, Pennsylvania, Chad (Rachel) Allen of Mukilteo, Washington, Tad (Debbie) Allen of Jasper, Kelly (Michelle) Allen of Huntingburg and Leigh V. Gilbert of Huntingburg; and 15 grandchildren.

The bright points of a person’s life are on display when they pass away. Loved ones gather cherished photos, mementos, and in some cases, newspaper clippings to celebrate their lives.

Doc’s life filled the foyer of Central Christian Church on the day of his funeral. Boards filled with photos of his endeavors and times with friends and family. Several clippings highlighting his exploits in life — he took part in an Eco-Challenge at 49 — and his passion for chiropractic.

There was a framed 45 RPM album that he and two friends recorded while attending the Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the mid-60s. The song on Side A is “My Granny” — a tongue-in-cheek reference to their weekend exploits in a 1961 Oldsmobile Super 88 four-door holiday sedan owned by one of the boy’s grandparents. The song had quite the following and got radio play before being ousted by more prominent musicians.

It is hard to see his inner battle in these accomplishments and photos of him skydiving, flexing shirtless, sailing, dancing, and loving life.

“He was always in competition with himself,” Cathy said.

She attributes some of Doc’s insecurity to his early life.

Abandoned by his mom at eight months old, Doc’s father found him sick with dysentery at a neighbor’s home. “Back then, a lot of kids with dysentery died,” Cathy said. “They gave him his last rites.”

He survived, but his father, Claire, also abandoned him, handing him off to his grandmother to be raised.

Then, when he was eight years old, he was moved to Clearwater, Florida, to be raised by a great aunt. As a teen, he asked to attend a prestigious military academy. He was known as Flip by his peers — maybe a play on his name or maybe in recognition of his flippant attitude and troubled teenager ways. But something inspired a turnaround in his senior year, and he became serious about his schooling.

Joining the Army, he served on a tank crew. Somehow, he avoided going to Vietnam, and when his enlistment was up, he went to the Palmer College of Chiropractic. He started practicing chiropractic. He opened The Wellness Center in Huntingburg, where he helped people daily for more than 40 years.

The rough, regimented, somewhat stoic Doc Phil Gilbert softened over those years.

In his late 30s, he decided to find his father. So he searched the phone book for all the Gilberts in Windsor, Canada, where he was born. He finally found someone who told him they thought Claire was in Detroit or Chicago.

He was able to determine Claire was in Chicago. So, he headed to where his father was allegedly living in a rough part of the city and found someone that knew of Claire. He was told that if Claire had any money, he’d be at a nearby bar, and if Claire didn’t have any money, he’d be at the Salvation Army, where they served meals.

Doc found Claire in a bar playing pool. When Doc told him who he was, Claire took a swing at him.
“He thought Phil was angry at him for giving him up,” Cathy said.

Doc simply told his father that he didn’t hate him; he loved him. “What you did for me saved my life and gave me a good life,” he told Claire.

He left Claire with his phone number and address to reach out if he wanted to have a relationship. A few weeks later, Claire sent Doc a letter. After that, the pair continued to correspond back and forth for years.

Doc would visit his father in Chicago and send him money to help out. Cathy remembers those visits. “When we were leaving, Claire would walk us to the car telling everyone this was his son, Phil Gilbert,” she explained. “And he always had an open blade in his hand by his side.”

Claire, a featherweight boxing champion in the service, who had served time for robbing banks, who had lived on the streets of Chicago for many years, who had abandoned his son, seemingly softened as Doc loved him.

Doc’s faith compelled him to open up to his father about the love of God. He wrote a long letter to Claire explaining salvation and God’s plan for him. This compelled Claire to declare his faith in Jesus. Doc cherished and saved that letter bearing Claire’s signature.

Tad, who worked with Doc at The Wellness Center in Huntingburg, saw his faith become more important in his life and practice. In the last few years, Doc actively sought those moments that could become openings to talk about Jesus.

Long-term relationships built around physical healing opened doors to existential questions and conversations. “He would come out and say, ‘Ring the bell, I got another one,'” Tad said about those moments when Doc was able to bring someone to Christ.

He loved. Genuinely.

Tad heard Doc tell so many people he loved them. “He would tell them in the waiting room or even in the adjusting room,” he said. “Many, many times I heard him tell someone he loved them as they left, and he was getting the next patient.”

“He told me he loved me every day,” Tad added.

His love softened his directness. Of course, he’d tell you exactly what he thought, but for the friends and family who knew his heart, they knew Doc’s words came from a genuine love for them.

He made you feel like you were his best friend. It is heartbreaking to think that he would have been surprised to see all the people he blessed with that friendship.

“He was a character, but that may be part of his charm,” Cathy said. “He could talk to anybody. He was just one-of-a-kind.”

The weight of Doc’s life was poured out in how he loved. 

13 Comments

  1. Awesome story !
    I as well , felt that he was my best friend ! He got me thru 3 Boston Marathons, I hope SOMEONE has that 100th Boston Marathon hat I gave him.
    Truly a great mentor. My brother and I are at a loss

  2. Precious smile Precious character!
    Loving friend and great healer.
    You are missed Phil (Doc)!!!
    Love,
    Your friend Tom

  3. He was My Best Friend also, knew Doc for at least 40 years, he helped me with some severe headaches, and now or I should say later on my Back…When my daughter Stacy passed away 21 years ago, at Huntingburg Hospital, at the age of 29, I went straight to Doc’s Office, had to talk to him and he stopped everything, took me to the back room, and cried with me. He knew how much I loved my bluebirds, so we would share pictures almost every week… Last Sat I saw this big bird on my mailbox, I thought what in the world, it was a Hawk, thought of Doc, he would have laughed so hard..RIP Dr G. I will see you again..

  4. To all of Dr. Gilbert’s Family,
    Thank You so much for putting this article out there for all of us.
    He truly was a wonderful person. He would have done anything to make someone better.
    He always did his best at everything he did!
    Loved him and will always remember his wonderful greeting smile!
    Teresa Morrison

  5. Thanks for this article. He was truly everyone friend and a wonderful person. Will always remember his smile and talks with him about my mom.

  6. He was a wonderful person. He going to be missed by so many. He helped me in so many ways. Few times I would be at the gym and he come talk to me . Thank you for the great article. Prayers to his family

  7. I was upset enough about his passing I didn’t go to his visitation, that’s something I
    Will always regret, I could always count on Phil even when his office was closed, been with him since I was a kid, sadly missed

  8. Wonderful article. Phil was a great friend and Bert and I loved his zany personality and light heartedness. He and Cathy were our witnesses in our wedding and there are many fond memories. Phil made the world a better place.

  9. Phil was a great caring man and chiropractor. He always made a person feel at ease when working on you. Such a wonderful character, smile and faith. He will be missed!!

  10. What a wonderful tribute to this wonderful man. He was my best friend too. We laughed ,cried and prayed together. The only doctor I trusted for many years. Miss him greatly

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