If you’ve read more than a few sentences of Gib Mathers’ work, you know what I’m talking about.
In a profession where writing can be formulaic and bland, Gib injected life, detail and color (and, if he could, puns). On assignments that your average reporter might see as just a task to cross off a list, Gib felt an obligation to come up with something original.
It was about a week before Christmas that Gib dutifully went out and snapped some photos of City of Powell crews scooping up and hauling away snow.
When it came time to write the caption, Gib started it off as anyone else would: “Powell street crews scrape up snow on Fourth Street behind Powell Middle School Sunday morning, with the temperature hovering at 4 degrees below zero.”
That’s where most reporters would have stopped.
He added, “The snow, like broken fragments of bone-white china, was piled in the center of the street for speedy retrieval. It wasn’t ‘The Nutcracker Suite,’ but it was a ballet of sorts, with Bill Gullion in the loader scooping up bucket-load after bucket-load of the white stuff for seamless transfer to dump trucks that maneuvered into position like diesel-powered dancers.”
Gib flashed his poetic license every chance he got.
One of my recent favorites was a piece he wrote in October, about a Bureau of Land Management effort to rehabilitate some of the land west of Cody that burned in the Whit Fire. The work involved using a helicopter to drop massive bales of straw on the landscape. Just listen to how Gib started the story:
“Thump, thump, thump.
The helicopter proclaims its approach, appearing in the distance like a fly speck on a windshield. An instant later the big comely aircraft is circling the rugged hills of fire-tinged trees like a bed of rusty nails. Its cargo is a gigantic net of loose straw tethered to a cable. Pilot Andy Orr of AV8-Orr Helicopters, Hamilton, Montana, releases his load.
The straw drifts down like flaxen confetti at a New Year celebration. Some of it is powdery, while larger shreds approximate autumn leaves dodging a homeowner’s rake.”
Of course, Gib’s way with words did occasionally get him into trouble. Shortly before I started working at the Tribune, he had to write a correction to clarify that the manager of Yellowstone Regional Airport “did not say security at the airport would be provided by pistol-packing guards.” Rather, the correction explained, the Cody airport manager had said “the guards would be armed.”
(Personally, I still prefer “pistol-packing.”)
But it was rare that readers or sources were upset with Gib.
At a time when journalists are often seen as enemies, Gib was, rightfully, seen as an ally.
As one example, consider this July 2015 comment, left by someone identified as “Jason G.” Jason indicated he wasn’t particularly impressed with the Tribune, but he was fully on board with Gib.
“There are too many editorials and stories that no one cares about. Gib seems to know what stories we like and makes us keep our subscriptions,” Jason wrote on the Tribune’s website, praising Gib’s write-up of a study of the Big Horn Basin’s golden eagles.
“Owners take notice — he is a true asset to your paper,” Jason wrote.
It was more than Gib’s one-of-a-kind writing that earned him such respect.
For one thing, he took balance seriously — always making sure to gather up comments from both sides of an issue.
There was also his thoroughness. Many journalists zip through an interview just long enough to get the information they need — and they’re sometimes reluctant to double-check their facts, not wanting to bother a source with a follow-up phone call or admit to getting a little confused.
He would make as many phone calls and talk as long as it took to pin down the details.
Cody Beers, a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Transportation, recalled telling Gib that, “When I talk to you, it takes an hour and a half rather than 15 minutes, but I don’t mind, because you get it right.”
“Then I think after I told him that, then he called me back two or three times on the same story,” Beers laughed, adding, “That’s what I liked about him — he didn’t just go off half-cocked and write a story.”
The repeated call-backs similarly earned Gib a bit of good-natured teasing from the folks he worked with at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said Tara Hodges, the department’s information and education specialist in Cody. But, more importantly, Hodges said that commitment to getting things straight also earned him the department’s appreciation and respect.
Beyond the facts was the authenticity of the conversations Gib had with nearly everyone he spoke with. Several times I overheard him call a highway patrolman or a hospital for a quick update about a car crash or other accident and, a half-hour later, find him still on the phone, commiserating with the trooper or spokesperson about how difficult it is to go to a crash.
It’s not that Gib was unique in how he felt — contrary to popular belief, most journalists hate chasing ambulances — but he was unique in taking the time and making the effort to have a genuine conversation.
“He was truly a delight to work with over the years,” recalled Sarah Beckwith, the public affairs representative for the local Bureau of Land Management office. “He often responded to my emails with a funny comment that made me laugh and he managed to brighten my day whenever I saw him in the field, at a meeting, etc. I will
Gib regularly encouraged his co-workers, especially if someone was having a rough day.
For his part, Gib responded to compliments in the way that many people respond to criticism: passing it on to others and minimizing it. Over the years, he received many tokens of appreciation (like thank you notes, cookies or other treats), and he would never fail to share them with the rest of the newsroom — as if we were the ones responsible for his fine work.
Just days before his death, Gib organized a staff-wide pizza party in recognition of some awards the Tribune had won.
“I have told Dave and Toby [Bonner] before what a privilege it is to work with such a talented, hard working crew,” he wrote in an email announcing the event.
“Gib — You are modeling what makes this enterprise (little ‘e’) work,” responded Dave Bonner, our publisher, recognizing Gib had won some of those awards.
Gib’s reluctance to accept praise came from being a humble, hard-working guy and, it seemed, from a certain disbelief that people actually meant the kind things they said to him. I wish Gib could have heard all the heartfelt things that so many people from so many organizations have expressed from the time he went missing until today.
Gib touched countless lives in this community over the past decade or so, in part because he wrote about so many different topics for the Tribune; he reported on the Powell Volunteer Fire Department (where he seemed to be something of an honorary member), covered the local irrigation districts, kept up with the Homesteader Museum and Powell Branch Library and faithfully wrote about Sally (Montoya’s) Boutique, the Christmas Basket program and other charitable efforts, year after year.
Gib’s main beat, however, was covering the outdoors. And he was an outdoors reporter in every sense of the word.
Hardly a week would go by where “Field Trippin’ Gib” wasn’t trying to persuade wildlife managers to take him along to collar wolves or chase down mountain lions. He jumped at the chance to take assignments that would get him out into nature and allow him to get hands-on with the environmental issues he covered.
The outdoors seemed to be where Gib really belonged, and he died in a place he loved, doing something he loved. But Gib also belonged in this community, among the people who loved him. That’s one reason why I wish Gib was still here, writing a column or filing his latest dispatch from the backcountry.
Like anyone else, journalists come and go, and sometimes, their memory quickly fades.