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25-year AP journalist met a who’s who of historical figures

There are many great men and women living in Screven County. There are the war heroes, the farming businessmen, the down-to-Earth politicians, and even beloved newspapermen. Screven County houses some of the most interesting people and one such example is Neil Gilbride, a veteran of World War II and an Associated Press news reporter for 25 years.
Gilbride is not from Screven County, but lives here with his daughter Kathleen Gilbride after his retirement from newswriting and failing health.
For an 86-year-old it’s unusual he was there during Iwo Jima. But he signed up to the U.S. Navy at the age of 15 and three months, serving out the latter stages of the war.
“I joined the Navy to see the world, and what did I see?  I saw the sea. I saw the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Pacific wasn’t terrific and the Atlantic wasn’t what it was cracked up to be,” he sang a parody of We Saw the Sea by Irving Berlin.
 Based on his educational background he said he was sent to signaling school and started paying more attention to the communications field.
He was a great reader when he was a kid and so when he used his GI Bill to attend the University of Miami after the war, he read and edited the college newspaper and a campus magazine, Tempo.
Right out of college he started working at the Jacksonville bureau of the Associated Press, then to the Atlanta bureau, and finally to the Capitol Hill as a labor union reporter for the AP.
During the 60s labor unions were powerful, and Gilbride got assigned to the beat for an obvious reason.
“Well it was open,” he said. “The Bureau chief offered me that. I first said, ‘I don’t want it,’ and he came back to me and said try it for a while and if you don’t like it you can ask for something later. I got the labor beat and found it very interesting. Especially the people. People in labor are real. It was an interesting time.”
Yes, Gilbride met and interviewed Jimmy Hoffa – even has a picture with him. And no, he doesn’t know where the former Teamsters’ president is buried.
“They say he’s holding up a bridge somewhere. He went one step too far,” Gilbride said. “He got too involved with the mob. He wanted presidency in the Teamsters back and the mob didn’t want that and neither did the man who took over from him. So that was the end of Jimmy.”
The reporting job was a stressful one, Gilbride said. He drank coffee by the gallon and smoked cigarettes until he found cigars and then smoked those. He did drink on the job, oftentimes, but never to the point where he missed anything.
“We drank all the time,” he said. “I’m lucky I didn’t drink myself to death. And a lot of it was free. You could probably go out to lunch or have a beer. You had to be careful; I don’t think I missed anything by over drinking.
“Some guys, who in a news conference setting, wouldn’t tell you a damn thing, and then you go out and have a drink with that same guy and then pretty soon he’s telling you everything including his problems with his wife, which you didn’t report on of course.”
That level of keeping secrets is missing in today’s journalists, he said. Now rules “gotcha” journalism, he thinks.
Gilbride has interviewed and met multiple presidents including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon – Tricky Dick “was definitely dishonest, his was more blatant than some of them.” He has also interviewed Vice President Hubert Humphrey, civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr., and many, many more. Throughout his career, he said he was never once star struck.
Once, while covering Eisenhower’s trip to Georgia, Gilbride asked the former president a question about retiring after his long career in public and U.S. Army service. 
“He said, ‘Well if felt like jumping out of an airplane for the first time and you’re not quite sure the parachute is going to open.’ But he did all right he lasted a number of years more,” Gilbride said.
During that trip Gilbride had the pleasure of sending his car back down the road to pick up the president’s luggage after the car carrying the luggage got a flat tire. Eisenhower said it was a nice act and walked all the way down the steps of his DC-7 to shake his hand, which an AP photographer captured.
“After I left I said to the photographer, ‘Did you see me shake hands with the great man?’ He tapped his camera, and said ‘I got it right here,’” Gilbride said.
He met MLK at a Birmingham church during a time when he wasn’t quite a world celebrity. Gilbride also rode with the Freedom Riders, and saw the threats up close.
“I got to cover some of the freedom rides,” he said. “The riots in the South. They got pretty hairy at times. The freedom riders proceeded down South, every time they came to a town there were problems. People threatening to beat them up and a couple of them did. It was interesting but not fun.”
Even though he was covering the labor unions and their mob connections, Gilbride said he was most afraid he’d get hurt covering the Freedom Rides. There were too many witnesses and writers about the mob as well as the mob not caring enough to actually threaten him, he said.
After all the excitement he “had enough” and retired at the age of 82. For fun he reads books and watches television – mostly news channels. Gilbride can still tell when a report isn’t complete or if it doesn’t seem correct.
He was upset about the early coverage of the recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Hobby Lobby and their objection to types of birth control. He said none of the news outlets gave the full picture – which should have been the business was offering some birth control options.
The decline of newspapers is something he watches closely, and feels their dwindling size has changed journalism the most.
“I hate to see what’s happening to newspapers, by and large,” he said. “Letting them just die. Others cutting way back. Even the New York Times now gives a weekday edition that’s (thin), when it used to be (thick). It’s sad.”
Gilbride has jumped out of the airplane and into retirement. Luckily for us in Sylvania, his parachute took him here.