Two heroes meet; Lovell visits hospice patient - Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center
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Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center

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Two heroes meet; Lovell visits hospice patient

Former NASA astronaut James Lovell poses with veteran Gerry Gibbons and his family

With his family, veteran Gerry Gibbons holds an Apollo patch given to him by retired Navy Captain James A. Lovell, former NASA astronaut. Lovell (center) visited Gibbons at Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, Ill. before Gibbons died in December, 2017.

By Julie Ewart, Communications Chief
Monday, April 2, 2018
Many people followed the harrowing story of the Apollo 13 space mission, commanded by the FHCC's namesake, retired Navy Captain James A. Lovell, either while it played out in 1970, or through the acclaimed 1995 “Apollo 13” film.

In December of last year, the Apollo 13 mission was the nexus for a visit to a special FHCC inpatient from Capt. Lovell himself.  

Dec. 28, in the FHCC’s hospice unit, Lovell, a local resident, visited Gerald “Gerry” Gibbons, an Air Force veteran who had a vital role in ensuring the happy ending to the Apollo 13 story. Gibbons, 88, died Jan. 12, 2018 at the FHCC.

As a vehicle director for Grumman Aerospace following his military service as a B-29 pilot in Korea, Gibbons worked with the team that built and tested the LM-7 lunar module. The module was nicknamed "Lifeboat" after it safely carried Lovell and his crew back to Earth after Apollo 13 suffered massive internal damage from an oxygen tank explosion. Following three days of global trepidation about the crew’s chance of survival, and unprecedented troubleshooting both in space and on Earth, the astronauts’ successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean was witnessed by TV viewers around the world. 

"The fact that I'm standing here talking to you is due to some of the work that you did on that lunar module," Lovell told Gibbons before presenting the veteran with an Apollo 13 patch that was flown in space, as a token of his deep appreciation. “My wife would have been very angry if I hadn’t returned,” quipped the former astronaut.  

Veteran Gerry Gibbons is pinned during a ceremony at Lovell FHCC.

Veteran Gerry Gibbons is pinned during a ceremony at Lovell FHCC, where he spent his last days at the end of 2017. At the same gathering, former NASA astronaut Captain James Lovell recognized Gibbons for the role Gibbons played in the Apollo 13 mission as an employee of Grumman Aerospace.

Lovell’s visit had a potent impact on Gibbons’ last days. According to son Bill Gibbons, the meeting sparked his father’s memories of being 9 years old in 1938 and watching with amazement when Howard Hughes flew over their Wisconsin farm during one of his historic flights. That event is when the elder Gibbons decided he wanted to fly.

Lovell’s visit also caused Gerry Gibbons to lament that all who shared in the Apollo 13 effort weren’t there to share in the limelight.

“While our dad was always proud of his service, he tended to wear that pride silently,” Bill Gibbons said. “What was more important to him than the service itself, was the opportunity that it gave him to fly and to be engaged with others who shared that passion.”

Gerry Gibbons and his wife, Peggy, now deceased, raised six children in a Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y. household “steeped in Apollo lore.”  Bill Gibbons recalled visiting his father’s Grumman workplace in the months before Apollo 13 went up and getting to crawl in the lunar module.

“It was something like a ‘Take Your Kid to Work Day.’ I remember looking out of the same windows that you see (the astronauts looking through) in the movie,” Bill Gibbons said.

Proud that the Grumman team was consulted when the Apollo 13 mission “started to go sideways,” Bill Gibbons thinks the Grumman character in the 1995 movie was a composite of several real people, including his father. 

“We watched it (“Apollo 13” film) differently because the guy who left our house every day at 6:15 a.m. and came back every night at 6 p.m. had played a role in it,” he said. 

The eventual meeting between Lovell and Gibbons was “a dream for about “45 to 50 years,” said Bill Gibbons, who sparked the idea for the visit by sharing his father’s story with FHCC staff.  He and numerous other proud family members stood by Gerry Gibbons during the meeting with Lovell.

The visit ended with a hospice pinning ceremony. FHCC Hospice and Palliative Care team members presented the veteran with a pin and certificate in honor of his distinguished service to his country. The elder Gibbons had lived in Gurnee, Ill. with Bill and his wife, Jean (Gibbons), since 2014, and moved to the FHCC when he fell ill last year.

“It was surreal to have so many of us be there to see these two heroes meet for the first time,” Bill Gibbons said. “We have nothing less than eternal gratitude to all who made that happen.”

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