Chris Gilbert | 2021
Chris Gilbert | 2021
Our next Hall-of-Fame inductee didn't earn his place by challenging sleds, but he carried a load 24/7/365 to make his event better every time it reconvened in the heart of a tiny town in central Tennessee. He didn't tune engines, forge gears, or shave tires, but he put more power to the Lions Motorsports Park track than anyone else could claim. And he didn't personally win a single national championship, but his Super Pull sure did, by entertaining pullers and thrilling spectators throughout the South, across the country, and around the world for 46 years and counting.
Chris Gilbert was the embodiment of the word "volunteer." Now, we mean that colloquially, as he and his fellow Chapel Hill Lions identify themselves with the team colors of the University of Tennessee. Whether viewed from aluminum stands or driver's seats, Volunteer Orange and White striping on the concrete barriers gives a distinctive character to the pulling arena at Lions Park. But those "distinctive characters" in the Super Pull traveling party, led by Chris, could themselves be regularly found in stands and seats in Tomah and Louisville and Bowling Green and at this very Awards Banquet.
Of course, we also mean "volunteer" quite literally. There was no more dedicated Chapel Hill Lion than Chris Gilbert, who could claim a 48-year record of perfect attendance. His home club was the best-known but not the only means by which he contributed to the betterment of his fellow man. His work as a pharmacist made him essential to the wellbeing of a broad cross-section of his middle Tennessee community. He served in the administrations of several local organizations, chairing both Marshall County's 911 Board and that of Swanson Cemetery. For these and many other examples of continued dedication, in 2020 Chris was named both Chapel Hill's Citizen of the Year and Marshall County's Citizen of the Year. And he devoted much of the balance of his time to the promotion of scholastic athletics, touring the state from autumn through spring to broadcast Forrest Rockets football, baseball, softball, and basketball games.
It is from this role---announcer---as it relates to pulling that most gathered in this room probably knew him best. Chris was the easygoing master of ceremonies for the South's most prestigious contest. The hearty welcome of one and all to Chapel Hill, TEN-uh-see. The gentle teasing of dozens of pullers who were knocked off the pull-off bubble and "sent to the showers." The late-night battles between the Fords and the CHEV-ruh-lays. The "O-O-O O'Reilly" singsong commercial reads. The anticipated announcement of "half-price hamburgers and cheeseburgers" around 11 on Saturday night. The soundtrack seldom changed, but it was always cheerfully delivered. The action never stopped, but its leader never hurried. The Super Pull's pace matched the manner of the man, the undisputed conductor in the tower, coordinating an orchestra of pullers, sponsors, vendors, fellow announcers, and cheers of an appreciative crowd.
To a more select few in this room, Chris was the folksy voice on the other end of the phone line, inviting them to their first Super Pull of the South. Or their 20th. As the Pull Chairman, the responsibility for the quantity and quality of vehicles fell squarely on his shoulders, but he carried it lightly. It seemed to be as big a thrill for the Lions to welcome a new "old friend" through the pit gate as it was for a competitor to take a shot---and maybe, if fortune smiled, to take a seat in his or her brand new director's chair. When introducing Chapel Hill to the world as the NTPA's newest Grand National in 1987, Chris told The Puller magazine, "One year, Danny Dean rolled in the gate, and we didn't even know he was coming. As the years progressed, it was 'One of these days, Ralph Banter is going to come'...'Tim Engler is going to come.'" Across the decades, pullers have kept on coming, and not just those in hot pursuit of titles. "Those who have been here before know the tradition ..., the friendliness, and hospitality extended to each puller and their families," Chris told the magazine.
A handful of us were privileged to engage with Chris at different flashpoints of the pulling calendar, as he'd call the NTPA office to discuss the details of promotional work that would be done on Chapel Hill's behalf in the months, weeks, or days leading up to that long-circled weekend in July. Unfailingly polite, meticulously prepared, and boundlessly enthusiastic, the Southern gentleman would put everyone with whom he spoke in a positive frame of mind for the rest of the day. Appropriate for a pharmacist, his encouragement was an elixir, good for whatever ailed our road-wearied spirits. He had the highest of standards for the Lions' event, and he was generous with praise for those he thought had helped them meet those goals.
And then, there are the ones here tonight who serve: Chris' fellow Lions. Over one hundred strong, the second-largest club in the State of Tennessee benefits the national organization's designated cause, sight conservation, by donating large portions of the tractor pull's proceeds to the Lions Eyebank and Sight Service at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville. Locally, the club funds community advancement projects including the volunteer fire department, the ambulance station, the senior citizen center, and scouting and 4-H youth activities. Indeed, the athletic complex adjacent to the pull grounds is itself a testament to the Lions' commitment to supporting healthy, team-oriented pursuits.
On Tuesday, January 5, 2021, the pulling world lost one of its steadiest advocates, a man who 46 years ago saw the potential for an event to satisfy not just the urge to demonstrate mechanical or driving prowess but also the impulse to cultivate a common cause among neighbors and friends. Moreover, he believed in it enough to will it to its present-day status as the NTPA season's midsummer oasis. Through its growth from field stock to state-level to Super National, there would be nothing substandard allowed near Chris Gilbert's Super Pull. As his quote to the magazine back in 1987 concluded, "For those who have _not_ been here before, we look forward to showing you that there is no better place in the world for truck and tractor pulling than Chapel Hill, Tennessee."
Ladies and gentlemen, as we welcome to the stage his family, friends, and fellow Chapel Hill Lions, let us honor the life and memory of Chris Gilbert, the newest inductee into the Pulling Hall of Fame.