By Maria Garcia and Connie Zuniga
Editor Note: Bill Gibbs died at the age of 106 in his La Jolla home on Saturday October 29. This is an encore presentation of the article we published last year, prior to his 105th birthday. A memorial service will be held on November 21 at 1pm at the La Jolla Presbyterian Church.
Bill Gibbs loved airplane flight so much that by the age of twenty-two he had developed barren scrub land in San Diego into his own airport and established a flying service there. Bill, who grew up in Logan Heights, recounted a remarkable story to us at his Mt. Soledad home. He spoke of family hardships during his youth, of hard work and how his passion for flying ultimately led him to develop what is now known as Montgomery Field Airport and a flying service that continues to operate today.
Bill’s story is also a remarkably long one– he will be 105 years old in October.
Bill Gibbs was born in 1910 in Twin Falls, Idaho, where the Gibbs family had emigrated from Scotland. Bill was nine years old when the family re-located to San Diego on December 31, 1919. They came by railroad and their first home was a room at the King George Hotel located at 7th and E Street. After a few days at the King George, the family moved to a cheaper hotel between 7th and 8th on Broadway. Bill says you had to climb a lot of stairs to reach their room. From there they moved to 2184 Evans Street in the middle of Logan Heights.
Bill was the oldest of nine children, although two died in infancy, and as the oldest had many responsibilities. He attended Logan Elementary School where well known San Diego educator Mabel O’Farrell was the principal. When Bill enrolled he was put in second grade. By the end of the day, however, he had been moved to third grade. At Logan he had the duty of ringing the bell a half-hour before school started. He was very slight and had trouble pulling the rope to ring the bell. He recalls that Mrs. O’Farrell would help him pull the bell to get it started.
From Logan Elementary he went to Memorial Junior High, but that transition was interrupted for a period of time when the family moved to El Centro because his father had secured employment there. Bill recalls that it was so hot in El Centro at night that they would soak their bed sheets in water and then cover themselves with them, in the hope was that they would stay wet long enough to be able to fall asleep.
One of his brothers was born in El Centro and became very ill and died. His mother, a registered nurse, was unable to cope with the death of her child and had a nervous breakdown. She was placed in a hospital in San Bernadino, where she remained for a couple of years. While his mother was in the hospital, his father remained in El Centro working.
The children returned to San Diego and were placed in Helping Hand, a children’s home that was located across from Juvenile Hall, in Mission Valley. His brother, his sister, an infant, and he all spent a period of time at Helping Hand. Life was not easy for young Bill and when the family was reunited he was thrilled.
He does remember being treated very well at Helping Hand and going on many excursions. One of these excursions was a trip to Lane Field where he watched Babe Ruth hit a home run out of the park. The Babe was on one of his barnstorming tours around the country at the time.
Bill thinks he was a member of the first class that attended three years at Memorial. He got his first library card at the original Logan Heights Library and talks very fondly about his visits there. When I asked Bill what he did for fun, his reply was very simple. He and his friends played games such as crack the whip or hide and seek; however, he did not play sports because “there was not time.” He also added that in today’s world he would not be able to play some of the mischievous games that he and his friends played.
While attending Memorial Junior High School his coach was Mike Morrow. Because of all of his jobs, Bill did not have time to play sports. He remembers that you could buy a sandwich of cold ham on a bun for a nickel for lunch at Memorial. The difficult part was keeping the seagulls from swooping down and stealing your sandwich—a problem still faced by school kids in San Diego.
Bill remembers Logan Heights as segregated with the area around Newton/Logan and National having a majority of Mexicans families. African -Americans lived around Clay Street and towards 31st and Imperial Ave.
When he was thirteen years old he went to work at Foreman & Clark delivering men’s suits. He would ride his bike to make his suit deliveries. He attributes all this exercise with helping him live a long life.
In 1929, at the age of fourteen, Bill was hired as a janitor at the old Aztec Brewery. When asked how he got this job, his response was that a union representative, P.J. Kristen was able to “get him in.” He had to join the Brewers, Bottlers and Soft Drink union. He worked nights and remembers the tasting room. He also admits to “sampling” the beer while working there. He is also very proud of the fact that he had “a key to every room in the building.”
The owners of the Aztec Brewery came from Mexicali. Bill remembers that they owned a very fancy house where they had large parties and entertained people from both sides of the border. His family was horrified that he was working at a brewery, but he brags that he was earning seventy- five cents per hour. This was a considerable amount of money for a grown man and certainly a lot of money for a young boy. The Aztec Brewery was eventually demolished. Its beautiful murals and woodwork are now located in the new Logan Heights Library.
During the Depression his family was not able to make their house payments. Bill went to Los Angeles to speak to the person who held the mortgage on the house. He explained that they wanted to pay their mortgage but were unable to do so. He was told that “your family might as well stay there as no one has money to rent it.” His job at the brewery enabled him to make the family mortgage payments. He negotiated a payment of $15.00 a month and said the man was thrilled to get it.
He held his job at Aztec brewery for seven years. He had other jobs at McCormick Lumber Company and at the Spreckels Tire Company. It was not unusual for him to work more than one job at a time. During this time period he rode his bike to San Diego High School where he graduated in 1926 and went on to San Diego State for a year and a half when it was located on Normal Street. When San Diego State moved to the College area location he had to quit school because he did not have the transportation to get there. He was also working two jobs, making time a factor in how far he could travel to continue his education.
One of Bill’s misadventures involved his father’s 1922 Studebaker which he now used to deliver the Foreman & Clark suits. One day on 19th and Market, he plowed into a city truck. The accident was his fault. Prior to this he had cracked the block of another of his father’s Studebakers by putting cold water in the hot car. This did not sit well with his dad.
At that time all the boys in the area that were lucky enough to own a car worked on their own car. They soon learned that if you bought several parts at one time the Ford Company would give you a 25% discount. In order to receive this discount Bill acquired five Fords.
At the age of twenty he started work at P.J. Cranster Reliable Junk and Supply, which led him to selling junk parts. The job that would have the biggest influence on his life was working at a service station for a man named Carlysle Madson. Mr. Madson was a flying instructor and the young Bill Gibbs traded his twenty-five cents an hour job for flying lessons. Eventually he would become co-owner with Madson of an airplane. Flying was his passion and he earned money giving sightseeing plane rides around San Diego.
There was an airport located between National City and Chula Vista. In the 1930’s he earned twenty-five cents an hour working at the airport. He traded his salary for flying lessons.
In 1937 his dream of owning an airport came to fruition. Over time he was able to purchase twenty-five acres at ten dollars an acre in the Kearny Mesa area of the city. Bill says it was empty land whose only inhabitants were wildlife. He, along with several of his friends, would take picks and shovels and painstakingly remove brush, rocks and other debris from the property. He named his airport Gibbs Field and started what would become Gibbs Flying Service. Bill was twenty-two years old.
In the 1940s he began to buy additional land for his airport. This purchase was made with a fifty dollar down payment and a twenty-five dollar payment which was made every three months. He also eventually purchased parcels of land around Interstate 163.
At the onset of WWII Bill wanted to join the Air Corps. The military, however, considered him more valuable as a flight instructor giving lessons to air cadets. As a civilian contractor for the military he was paid very well. He eventually was allowed to enlist in the Air Corps.
By the time the war started he had at least a half a dozen planes. He says it is possible that he had as many as eight planes but he is sure he had at least six. Because of the war civilian flights were not allowed to fly within a specific distance of the coast. At that point he moved his whole operation to Tucson, Arizona. He remained in Tucson until the end the war. When he returned, he resumed giving flying lessons at Gibbs Field. Some of his best customers were returning war veterans.
In 1948 Gibbs Field was acquired by the City of San Diego and renamed Montgomery Field. When I told him I was sorry he had lost this land, he patted my arm and said, “Oh honey, don’t worry. I did very well on that deal.”
Today, Gibbs Flying Service is operated by his son. The business not only provides flying lessons but also a “parking” location for private planes. Bill explains that he has had many other services, some of which he cannot remember. He does say that their real estate investments have been good. In 2012, Gibbs Flying Services celebrated 75 years of service.
Airplanes had many other effects on his life. He wife worked as a secretary for Ryan School of Aeronautics. They married in 1942 and were together until her death. He still lives in the house they once shared.
Happy 105 Birthday to Bill Gibbs. Thank you for the wonderful stories from “the old days”.
Connie Zuniga is a retired General Dynamics employee, community activist and Vice President of the Friends of the Logan Heights Library.