Building Brighter Futures
A former NASA engineer finds new fulfillment helping Habitat for Humanity.
On just about any given Wednesday and Saturday, you’ll find John Gibb climbing ladders, putting up siding, building porches, hanging drywall ... and loving every minute of it.
For 14 years, the retired NASA engineer has donated his time and talent to Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, ecumenical organization that has built more than 300,000 houses around the globe since its founding in 1976.
Gibb and a team of 25 other volunteers –– most of whom are members of Bay Presbyterian Church in Bay Village –– focus their efforts close to home: Currently, they’re finishing two houses on East 162nd Street, in the heart of Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood.
“You do come home with aches and pains,” Gibb, 74, admits with a chuckle, “but you get used to them, and you try not to overdo it. It’s when you overdo it that you get into trouble.”
Gibb and his wife, Carol, moved to Cleveland from their native Wisconsin after graduating from college in 1956. Upon receiving a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Illinois, Gibb took a job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
“It wasn’t call NASA back then,” he recalls. “But as soon as the Soviets launched their first satellite, Sputnik, it became a space program.”
Gibb spent 38 years as an engineer, helping develop the equipment that would serve as launch vehicles for satellites and space probes, and testing rocket engines filled with liquid hydrogen, oxygen and other high-energy propellants.
“It was very interesting work that kept us hopping,” Gibb reflects. “There was a fair amount of pressure and no room for error. Everything had to work perfectly. It wasn’t like today, where you have backups for backups.”
When Gibb decided to retire in 1994, he had no intention of letting go of the momentum in his life. He looked around for a project, and decided on Habitat.
“I had always been interested in building, and I was looking for something to do with my hands,” Gibb says. “I believe in the mission of Habitat for Humanity: Providing a better quality of living to those who deserve it.
“So, I decided to see how the program worked. Once I started I never quit.”
Over the years, the tireless volunteer has worked on 36 homes in Greater Cleveland. Some he’s helped build from scratch, others he’s rehabbed. All in all, Gibb has devoted more than 5,000 hours to the cause.
And, he’s quick to point out, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist or engineer to lend a hand.
“If somebody’s willing to learn, you can teach them darn near anything,” he says reassuringly. “When we get a new person in the group, we just team them up with some of the volunteers who’ve been with it for a while.
“And,” Gibb adds, “we’re always looking for people who can also serve as good helpers –– somebody who can grab the other end of a piece of wood or hold a post while someone who already knows what he’s doing drills it.
“People become more amazed at what they can do, than by what they cannot.”
But at the end of the day, Gibb says, there’s no place like the ranch-style home he and Carol have lived in for four years at Wesleyan Meadows, an independent-living community in Sheffield Village, that’s part of Wesleyan Senior Living’s continuum of care. The couple, who’ve been married for 52 years, didn’t think twice about downsizing from their Westlake Cape Cod in 2006.
“We lived in our previous house since 1974,” Gibb explains. “It was going on 50 years old, and although we put new windows in a few years back, we knew it was due for another round of repairs.
“Our parents had lived in communities with continuing-care provisions, and it worked out very well for them. We decided to make the move while it was still our decision –– not someone else’s.
“It’s a decision Carol and I have never regretted.”
The couple, who enjoy vacationing in such far-away ports of call as China, New Zealand and South America, also enjoy the peace of mind living at Wesleyan Meadows affords.
“When we travel,” Gibb says, “ we just turn down the heat, lock the door and off we go.”