Today Gilbert H. Neal died, at age 82. To the rest of the world, he was the accomplished tire company executive who had a globe-spanning business career that culminated in the presidency of General Tire. To our branch of the Webner clan, though, he was simply known at UG — pronounced “Ugg,” and short for Uncle Gilbert.
He had an enormously successful business career that saw him rise from the bottom of the corporate ladder to the very top. He began in sales, was manager of a Firestone Tire store, then eventually became district manager of the Firestone stores in southern California. The Firestone executives clearly saw promise in this young man, because they made him the branch manager of the Firestone affiliate in Puerto Rico — and when he handled that job adeptly, he became managing director of the Firestone affiliate in Argentina, and then managing director of the Firestone affiliate in Brazil. He was brought back to the States to become vice president for Firestone’s Africa, Asia, and Far East operations, then moved to London, England to become vice president for Firestone Europe and Africa. He was named president of Firestone Steel Products, became a Firestone corporate vice president, and then became the president of General Tire.
It’s a record of extraordinary achievement in the business world. As kids, we Webners were dimly aware of Uncle Gilbert’s success, because we heard about the Neals living in the most exotic locations imaginable. Hey, one time they lived close to Disneyland, the mecca of any American kid in the ’60s! And they lived in foreign countries, and ate foreign food and went to foreign schools, and had security guards drive them around! To kids growing up in suburban Ohio, it was all impossibly glamorous and romantic.
Yet somehow, through it all, Uncle Gilbert remained UG. The success never changed him, really, from the man I first remember from when I was a toddler. He was a big man with an even bigger personality. If we kids were acting up, he gave the same blue-eyed, laser beam glare that could bore holes into the frostiest glacier and make you snap back into correct behavior in a nanosecond. But, his house was always a fun place because he and Aunt Barbara made it so. Theirs was the first place I remember hearing the record “The Twist,” and we kids watched Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Barbara laugh as they showed us how to do that dance. We Webners loved getting together with our Neal cousins Peg, Beth, Gib, and Dave because we knew we were in for a good time.
For as long as I knew him, UG had the same corny sense of humor and toastmaster jibes, like the one about the farmer being the man who truly was out standing in his field. He could talk for hours about golf mechanics, but he had the fastest golf backswing ever seen on the planet, one that broke all laws of physics and could not be captured even by stop-action photography. He played euchre with a roar, always asking for “the hook” on the turn card and always ready to burst into a huge, delighted grin when he somehow took the last trick that kept my sister Cathy from winning a hand. He was an avid reader who kept a fascinating array of books around the house. And he always — always — loved, respected, and honored my grandfather, and would sweat bullets when Grandpa Neal would sit as Uncle Gilbert labored to balance Grandpa’s checkbook, down to the very last penny. He knew well that if that checkbook didn’t balance, he’d just have to do it again and again, under Grandpa’s withering glare, until he finally got it right.
When I graduated from college, Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Barbara were living in London. They hosted me at their Marylebone Road flat for weeks before I went on a Eurorail pass trip around continental Europe and then again before I returned to the States. They were the most gracious hosts imaginable, and I will always treasure that time spent with them — although I think, now, about what it must have been like to have a shaggy, bearded college know-it-all suddenly become a fixture in their home for what must have seemed like forever. If they had any regrets, they never shared them or showed them. It takes a generous man to do such a thing.
As I grew older, and learned a bit more about the past, I learned that I owed another thing to UG — I might not even be here if it weren’t for him. He was instrumental in bringing my parents together and convincing my grandparents that my father was a hard-working man with prospects who really was good enough for a bank executive’s daughter. Dad and Uncle Gilbert always had a strong bond. It struck me that the first time I saw Uncle Gilbert, the executive who was at ease behind any podium, unable to stand and speak was at the small, family-only memorial service we had when Dad died almost 17 years ago.
I mourn the passing of this great and good man, who worked so hard, accomplished so much, and meant so much to his family, our family, and his many friends. I send my prayers and best wishes to my cousins Peg, Beth, Gib, and Dave, and their families, who are today dealing with such an enormous loss. Tonight, UG and his legacy will be very much in my thoughts.