John Felton Gibbons was born on 6 October 1937 in Bauxite, Arkansas. His parents were George C. Gibbons, a metallurgical engineer at the local Bauxite Mine, and Anne Donor Gibbons. This background gave John his calling as a geologist which he taught, researched and explored all his life.
“Peddler”, a poem he wrote in later life, described how he worked with a vegetable vendor, earning a “handful of coins” and learned life lessons:
Great riches for a six-year-old
The most important lesson came at the end of the day
Delivered to those, of all colors, in need,
PERFECT respect, discretion and courtesy
Empty hand inserted in pocket while leaving, to
Mime the acceptance of payment.
After High School he studied at Arkansas State University where he graduated with Bachelors and Masters degrees in geology and then a PhD at Syracuse University. He joined the geology department at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania in fall 1966 and after three years, moved to the geology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Two years later he left academia to work in the private and government sectors, including research for US Geological Survey and private commissions including work with a group of Marine engineers and biologists in the South Pacific and searching for safe drinkable water in the Philippines.
His professional passions were water and earthquakes and he continued to give strong opinions on how to ensure sustainability of quality and quantity of water supply, the dangers of underground storage of nuclear waste, and controversially denied that fracking caused earthquakes. He predicted the big 2011 earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument in DC, although the prediction does not seem to have been documented.
He married Barbara in December 1961 and in 1967 they adopted a son, Jason. Several years later they separated. Barbara married Stephen Schlossman and they had a son Mikhael whom John regarded as his son. Jason died tragically from a seizure in 2002. In his last decades, John had two further extended close relationships for which he expressed continuing gratitude while feeling sadness that they were not fulfilled.
For his whole life John engaged in deep, wide-ranging conversations. In his last years some of these ended in feelings of mutual misunderstanding. However, his sharings continued in deep bedside and phone dialogues with his charm, grace and concern overcoming the many limitations of his situation.
He had an extensive circle of friends, many dating back to his student and early working days and he was always looking and hoping to bring more of them together. One of his last projects – sadly unfulfilled - was to have a bedside seminar series on “The significance of the things that cannot be proved”
He wrote and appreciated poetry. His poems contain hints of early insights into human values, relationships and many which use geological images to meditate on the aeons of time and human smallness, the tensions of the living Earth.
He raced motorcycles as a teen but his love for riding big motorbikes led to a serious accident that left him wheelchair bound. Dauntless, he was still able to practice as a field geologist until a series of falls in 2015 produced paralysis of his lower body making it impossible to even be in a wheelchair.
While he tried hard to work with physical therapy to return strength at least to his upper body it became clear that he would have to live out his days bedridden, in assisted living. He gave away all his possessions but his room gradually gathered gifts from friends which he specially valued including several pictures, an ammonite fossil whose age of over 60 million years delighted him and a giant geological map of New Mexico which covered one wall.
John had come to New Mexico because of a close relationship and because there were people here he felt he could relate to. Rejecting the prevailing fundamentalist Christianity of the Arkansas community, he had engaged in a lifelong search for meaning and a spiritual home, finding clues in Buddhism, especially Zen. Sometime before his accident he was attending a group led by Mother Judith Culver whom he referred to as “my late spiritual guide”. Around 2010, he and a close friend agreed to correspond in a discussion on Quakerism and Zen.
This led to his attendance, in Albuquerque, on 21 November of that year, at his first Quaker Meeting, after which he recorded his impressions:
“Now, back to my experience with the Quakers, yesterday. My admiration of the children grew out of several observations. Calm, No brattiness or willfulness, great poise. NO purely formal deference to adults. Quiet respect for everyone including each other. One toddler went about the room touching and beaming at the meditating adults. They most strongly reminded me of the children of several marine engineers that I worked with in the south Pacific many years ago, who had been reared mostly at sea. Part of my strong response to these kids yesterday was because they will never be killed while serving in a war, nor will they be asked to take other’s lives. This seems the most direct way to peace. Raise peaceful kids who will not serve in war.”
Children had a special place in his heart. A later poem records the death of a marine engineer family while sailing back to Hawaii:
Children of the sea are special beings
We need all of them
Their unobstructed viewpoint makes them priceless
Fewer and fewer all the time in this world
Grown too full.
And in the above letter he wrote: “Like you, I think I am interested in Quakerism for what it is not. The strain of Quaker practice that interests me is what [Pink] Dandelion describes as "liberal". I have become thoroughly frustrated at the Christian inability to recognize the futility of forever trying to frame spirit in words, creeds, and ceremony….Quakers use the silence, I believe, to encourage contact with something called God, outside the verbal/conceptual and to try to frame action (business) in a way that makes the insights gained part of life.” About a year later he requested Membership of Albuquerque Monthly Meeting and after due process was accepted into membership on 6 November 2011.
He quickly became involved in many aspects of the Meeting’s life and served on several committees. He is remembered for his unfailing cheerfulness and enthusiasm. Even after he was bedridden, Friends who visited were always asked for the latest news and he again and again said how important Meeting was to him and how he missed the company of Quakers. In his last months a few bedside Meetings for Worship were held although he was not always able to sustain the silence for long, preferring to feed on the friendship of conversation.
He died peacefully at 2 am on 20 April 2018.
We give thanks for his life and work among us.