|Gilbert Laycock, of Fort Thomas, seems to have a story to tell for every year of his long, eventful life./Uhl|
by Kara Gebhart Uhl
“There are 7 billion people on this earth, and only one of you and one of me,” says Gilbert Laycock, as we sit down at his dining room table at his home on Grant Street in Fort Thomas.
The table is covered with stacks of reading material—National Geographic, Fortune, Newsweek, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, newspaper clippings and books. He reads them all. His current number of subscriptions (12) pale to his record year—42. He read all of those, too.
Laycock is 96 years old. He was born September 3, 1918 to John and Dorothy Laycock, near California, Ky.—he was an only child. In 1919 he won first prize in the Alexandria Fair’s cutest baby contest. (Fast forward years later to when a tree on Woodfill Elementary’s property fell on Laycock’s property, destroying 50 feet of fence. At one point Laycock called the Board of Education and said, “You have one week to fix this or this blue ribbon baby is going to sue your blue ribbon school.” It was fixed.)
Laycock and his family moved several times in the 1920s. He remembers years, addresses and details as if they happened yesterday. In 1925 his family had moved in with his ailing grandmother. Laycock would play doctor, checking his grandmother’s pulse, while walking 1-1/2 miles each way to a two-room schoolhouse in Carthage.
In 1927 Laycock and his parents were living on the 3rd floor of a four-family in Cincinnati. He attended grades 3-6 at Columbian School on Union Street. Laycock was the bell-ringer for the changing of classes, made straight As, and loved to play marbles and collect Indian Head pennies.
Then, the Great Depression began. Laycock attended 7th and 8th grade at the newly opened Walnut Hills High School. “I ate the first full meal I had ever had in my life in the cafeteria under the library,” Laycock says. He ate three full plates of spaghetti. He excelled on the junior high gym team, but his grades began to slip.
His family moved back to Northern Kentucky, first South Newport and then Southgate. His father didn’t want his son to have to switch schools again, so he told Gilbert to go to Newport High School and not leave until they allowed him to register. The secretary took one look at his address and asked him to leave. He politely refused. The principal got involved and then the superintendent, all the while Laycock politely refusing. They let him register and in 1937 he graduated valedictorian of his class.
While in high school Laycock worked as a clean-up boy at Manyet Bakery in Southgate, every afternoon after school and overnight on Fridays. Times were hard. His father was running a shipping dock but still, food and coal were scarce.
At this point Laycock asks me to stop writing—not because he wants to go off the record, but because he wants me to really listen.
One Saturday morning his father came to him and said, “Gilbert, you know what you need to do.” Laycock then tells me, with tears quietly welling, about taking his Indian Head pennies, all those pennies he had been saving all those years, to the hardware store for $11 worth of coal and then to the grocery for $29 worth of food.
“I cried all day,” he said.
After graduating Newport High School he worked full-time at the bakery for $12 a week. He gave his father $6 a week for room and board, and he spent the remaining $6 mostly for dates with his high school sweetheart, Grace. They lived close to each other, and they’d flash their porch lights to say goodnight.
Grace started beautician school at Marinello in Cincinnati, and Laycock began attending Morehead State University, thanks to a favor in the form of a letter from A.B. “Happy” Chandler (Laycock’s father had done political work for him), and money both Laycock and his father had carefully saved. Laycock started attending classes in 1938, washing pots and pans in the cafeteria to cover his room and board.
Laycock hitchhiked 52 times in order to see his beloved Grace while in school. In 1939 Grace made the trip to Morehead and stayed in a hotel. They watched “Gone With the Wind” in the theaters. They were late, and the only seats left were in the first row. So Laycock offered two men 50 cents each for their back row seats. “Money talks,” Laycock says, laughing.
Laycock and Grace secretly married in Newport on November 30, 1939, Thanksgiving Day.
Laycock excelled in college, was head of the debate team, and president of the math and physics clubs, and graduated in three years with a science degree. A Seagram Co. distillery’s headhunter convinced him to interview for a management-training job at their Lawrenceburg, Ind. plant. Grace and Laycock moved to a 2nd-floor apartment in Lawrenceburg, where they shared a bathroom with the downstairs tenant. He worked eight hours a day, seven days at week.
|Laycock's extensive private library, located in the basement of his home on Grant St./Uhl|
In 1942 Laycock was called up to the army but was deemed unfit for combat due to spots on his lungs from childhood pneumonia. This year also saw the birth of their first child, Jeffrey Gilbert, born December 14.
In 1943 Laycock began working midnight shifts so he could attend Salmon P. Chase College of Law (which at the time was located in Cincinnati). To save on gas money they moved to a 3rd-floor attic apartment in Cincinnati. Grace was caring for Jeffrey, pregnant with their second child, Bonnie, and Laycock was working 64 hours a week at Seagram’s for $1.25/hour while also attending school three nights a week.
In 1944 they moved to a concrete block house in Southgate and Bonnie Sue was born, February 10. They moved to Newport and Seagram’s cut Laycock’s overtime. So to make ends meet he bought an extension ladder and began cleaning gutters. He made quite a bit of money so soon after he quit Seagram’s and began his roofing business.
At this time Laycock’s father was successful, building GI houses, which Laycock helped with. Laycock’s daughter, Linda Lou, was born July 11, 1947. Needing a bigger house and having graduated law school, Laycock drew up plans and built a home in Fort Thomas in 1948. At the time the house faced 27, looking over a grove of trees on the lawn of the next-door First Christian Church. He soon learned that the church had plans to construct a new building, right in front of his house. Not wanting to face a brick wall Laycock bought the adjacent lot, saved money and in 1956 jacked up his house and turned it 90 degrees to face Grant Street. In 1957 his third daughter was born, Nancy Lee. During the Cold War he had a fallout shelter built underneath the carport, complete with cots, and enough food and supplies to last a month.
Laycock has done well in life, with both his roofing business and real estate—buying, building and renting properties. He kept track of everything by writing on his trousers—Grace knew to check with him before doing the wash. Despite his early hardships during the Great Depression, he says he’s given away more than $1 million in his life. His life has been rich in love, too. Grace and Laycock celebrated their 50th anniversary in the rose room at a hotel in Covington, with 50 guests, filet mignon, potato pancakes and a harpist. They were married 73 years when Grace died at the age of 91, in 2013.
“Every man who has ever met her fell in love with her,” Laycock says. Her room remains untouched, and on her bed is a black-and-white picture of the two of them taken close to when they first met, framed by a pair of her shoes and a tin heart-shaped box on top.
Although Laycock’s travel has only extended to St. Louis to the west, New York to the east, Toronto to the north and Key West to the south, he has lived. He can—and will—spend hours telling stories. There’s a story about how he built a wind tunnel in his physics class that got out of control and blew a window out in the lab. And several stories about roofing projects he’s done on gambling and prostitution houses in Newport. There are stories about eating (always at table 32) with Grace at The Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio followed by watching the horse races. There’s a story that ends with tears and a faltering voice about his daughter, Bonnie, who died of Hodgkin’s. There’s a story about the time he rode on the Goodyear Blimp, with Grace, over Cincinnati. And a recent story about riding in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, just a few months ago: “For $454 I rode that son of a bitch,” he says. “They had to lift me on the goddamn thing but there I was, one arm out the window while we flew 130 miles per hour.”
The night after our first interview Laycock went to see the movie about Stephen Hawking and, as such, was reading A Brief History of Time (along with several other books). He talks about physics and history and politics and money and love and loss and heaven in part, because he likes to and, in part, because he has so much to share—this man on Grant Street who used to have a sign in his front yard, which many Fort Thomas residents often wondered about. The numbers on it, which he changed accordingly, represented Grace’s age, his age, and the number of years they had been married.
He took it down after Grace died.
To end, a bit of poetry from Laycock’s self-published works: this, from a poem titled “A Love Poem”:
“After life’s uncertain race,
Lost awhile thy loving face,
Till once again I see my Grace,
If you know of a Fort Thomas resident with an interesting story, please contact me at email@example.com.