A tribute to 'the big sophomore'

Jan 13, 2014 By Randy Tucker

Uncle Gene could load a 55-gallon oil drum -- full-- into the back of a pickup truck.

My cousin Ron was playing basketball for Midwest at the opening season tournament in Shoshoni back in November of 1975. My little sister Susie was a cheerleader for the Wind River Cougars, who also were playing in the four-team bracket.

My Uncle Gene was an ardent Midwest Oilers fan and had already followed Ron's older brothers Mike, Gary and Dan to many football games and wrestling matches. Anyone in the gym quickly realized who the big man from Natrona County was rooting for.

As my sister walked by Gene he grinned at her and said, "Hey good lookin'." Susie spun around and, in an Academy Award-level performance, jumped back and said, "Do youflirt with all the girls, you dirty old man?"

Gene was flabbergasted. Susie waited a few seconds, then jumped into his lap and gave him a big hug.

"Hi, Uncle Gene," she said.

It was one of the few times someone got the best of my recently-departed uncle.

Eugene Gasser Jr. passed away in Midland, Texas last week at the venerable age of 87. In many ways Gene had already departed us when his beloved wife, my aunt Mary, died nearly two years ago.

What can you say about a man born to Swiss immigrants in 1926 who survived the dark days of the Depression only to have his graduation from high school celebrated in the brutal combat conditions of the Philippines a few months later? It wasn't an easy life for Gene. But he made the best of it by working hard, loving his family, worshipping his wife, and making the world a better place for those close to him.

A few years ago I was talking in the newspaper office with the late Bob Peck about Riverton football back in the 1940s. Bob graduated in 1942 and my uncle Gene and his friend Gene Franklin played tackle and tight end on the same Wolverine squad. When I asked Bob about the two Genes, he quickly quipped, "I remember them well. Big sophomores. We could really use those guys."

Bob's comments made me think of my uncle in a different light.

The war was horrible for every man involved, but a shy kid from arid Wyoming found a special hell in the humid, fetid conditions of the South Pacific. Jungle diseases disabled more American troops than Japanese bullets, and Gene fell victim to a variety of especially nasty tropical bugs. He spent a long time in military hospitals recovering from his ailments, and they affected him to varying degree for the remainder of his life.

Gene was a big man, 6-1 and 225 pounds in him prime, and frighteningly strong, with a quick temper. He went to work in the oil field after the war where his strength became legendary around Midwest. Few men could load a 55-gallon drum of oil by themselves, but Gene did it often, rolling the 400-plus-pound cylinder onto his legs and lifting it into the back of a pickup truck.

Occasionally his temper took the best of him and he stepped in as other roughnecks struggled with a heavy collar or pipe, pushing them aside and throwing the offending object into place.

My mom and my Aunt Nellie worshipped their older brother as well. Gene preferred driving the big Mercury sedans that came out after World War II, and one night he loaded his little sisters into the car and headed to Lander for the annual Wolverine/Tiger football game. With traffic bumper to bumper from Riverton to Hudson moving slower than Gene thought it should, he pulled out to pass and drove nearly all the way to Hudson in the wrong lane, passing miles of cars.

Maybe it was the war that softened Gene's heart, or maybe he always had a soft spot for animals, but he hated hunting and lavished his dogs. His favorite was a little mutt named Maynard. I heard my cousins comment many times that when they died they wanted to be reincarnated as one of their dad's dogs.

Gene demanded a lot of his kids, and the results were spectacular. He lost his son Timmy, just a few months younger than I, to SIDS back in 1957, and his eldest son Mike just two years ago, but his surviving sons -- Gary, Dan, Ron and Rick -- have all done well, with Gary a musician and music teacher and the other boys following their dad to the oil field with engineering degrees and business interests.

My cousins Jeannie and Penny were their dad's delight and, in spite of the inherent intimidation surrounding any young man who wanted to date one of Gene's daughters, they both married outstanding young men who loved Gene as if he were their own father.

As I covered the Dubois/Midwest football playoff game last fall in Midwest, I asked a few people if they knew Gene and Mary. To a person, they all had a story to tell me about them or a link to one of their children. The entire family moved away from Midwest many years ago, but their influence remains in the small community.

Uncle Gene is gone. After Mary passed away he wasn't the same man. In spite of being constantly surrounded by his sons and daughters and their families, and weekly phone calls from his sisters Ruth, Jeanette and Nellie, and his brother Ralph, he had a hole in his heart that no one on Earth could fill.

The son, "big sophomore' tackle, infantryman, roughneck, foreman, superintendent, husband, father and grandfather has gone home.


Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator.

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