|Gilbert Laycock standing next to a framed picture of him as a baby, in 1919, after winning the Alexandria Fair & Horse Show's Blue Ribbon Baby award.|
September 3 will mark Fort Thomas resident Gilbert Laycock's 97th birthday. And Saturday, September 5, Laycock will be honored at the Alexandria Fair & Horse Show, the same fair he was named Blue Ribbon Baby, 96 years ago.
Laycock has already written his speech. "My entire life has been based on two things," he includes. "One is love and the other is respect for everyone that I meet."
I wrote about Laycock in November, having spent several days talking with him in his home. Throughout the year I've visited occasionally—once we had a conversation while my young twin boys watched cartoons in his living room.
During this most recent visit, he shows me a watercolor portrait of himself a member of the Art Academy of Cincinnati had done. It hangs on the wall in his living room and in the portrait, Laycock is holding a book. He told the Academy he always has a book in hand, so it's only fitting that one appear in the portrait. This week he's reading Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers 1967 to Present, compiled by Gloria Naylor. He reads me a paragraph, and grows teary eyed at its beauty and pain.
Although I'm there to talk about the Fair, Laycock moves the conversation through his past, his present, and his thoughts on space, religion, dimensions and time. With every visit, his dining room table is different. Today there is a picture of him holding his third great great grandchild—his fourth is due this month. There's a framed poem, Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" Above this is a framed picture of Laycock sitting on his porch with two sisters—Avery and Paige Barber—standing next to him. "Those sweet neighbor girls gather my papers every morning and put them in my mailbox," he says. In return, Laycock leaves them a Sacagawea golden dollar coin.
Coins are a big part of Laycock's life—in November I wrote about how he, as a boy during the Great Depression, had to use his Indian Head penny collection to buy coal and food for his family. Saturday, at the Fair, Laycock plans to present each contestant with one Sacagawea golden dollar coin, along with a copy of a love poem he wrote for his deceased wife Grace, to whom he was married for 73 years. He has 200 prepared, even though he was told the number of contestants averages 75. "I always cover my butt," Laycock says.
He does his research, he knows his numbers. "There are 3,132 counties, parishes, whatever you want to call them in the United States," he says. "But there is only one Alexandria Fair, and that is in Campbell County."
Laycock has been honored at the Fair for at least the last 10 years, he says. "I'm always introduced as a special guest—the Blue Ribbon Baby of 1919."
I ask him if he's ever nervous to give his speech and he waves his hands at me. "I'm a people person," he says. "My biggest year [of work] I had 619 roofing jobs ranging from downspouts to slate roof tear-offs. That means I had to talk to at least 1,000 people, either selling or collecting." Laycock often had a large crew of men working for him—he was known to hire those in need. When his children were young and his wife, Grace, became overloaded with answering his job-related calls, Laycock hired a 50-year-old woman, Lillian Eckert, to work eight hours a day, five days a week. Locals told the woman she would only last four days working for Laycock. She lasted 38 years, retiring at the age of 88.
Today Laycock has several women working for him in the roles of caretaker, biographer and typist, and housekeeper. Recently one of the women, who also works for the City of Cincinnati Park Board, took him to see Carol Ann's Carousel at Smale Park, letting him ride solo after hours. Although Laycock no longer drives, he still manages to experience his world.
Love and respect, both for the people who work for him and the people he cared for by way of work. Over the years Laycock has owned and rented properties throughout northern Kentucky, many through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). He often loaned money to tenants for gas and groceries, lowered payments, helped them make it work. He became friends with many. Respect and love.
"There are good men in this world," he says to me while sitting in his living room. "You just have to know where to find them. Sometimes they're right next door."
As I leave, another Fort Thomas resident on a motorcycle turns onto Grant Street from 27 and, seeing Laycock on his porch, stops. "Gilbert!" he yells. "How are you, my man! He's my hero," the man says to me. After he leaves Laycock tells me this same man rode his motorcycle from Fort Thomas to Alaska.
As I say my goodbyes, Laycock asks me to remind him of how we met. I told him how I used to live on Grant St., and how for years I noted the sign he used to have in his front yard, filled with changing numbers representing Grace's age, his age, and the number of years they had been married. I told him how touched I was when he and Grace handed out Sacagawea golden dollar coins at Halloween—my daughter still has hers. Laycock believes our future is predetermined—it all has to do with space, time, dimensions. Hence, our meeting again was meant to be.
The same is true with death. "Everyone has a time," he says. And to many, Laycock's time on earth has been well-spent indeed. "My world has been as best it could have been for any human being," he says.
As I drive away I look up and wave. Laycock is holding up both of his canes, smiling and saluting me. It's then, it occurs to me. This 1919 Blue Ribbon Baby has turned into a Blue Ribbon Man, for me and many.