A Trip down Memory Lane

Returning to Eugene as Oregon’s honorary captain for the clash with Michigan State, David Gibson ’51 reminisced on his time at UO

By UO student Lili Wagner

Gibson played center during his time at Oregon
and represented the Ducks in the 1949 Cotton

When David Gibson ’51 attended the University of Oregon in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the mascot was not the downy Donald character we see today but a live duck named Puddles. Gibson, a center on Oregon’s football team at the time, remembers an adventure rescuing the Duck with teammate Dan Sullivan.

“They were letting the Duck drink beer. They were letting the Duck get drunk!” Gibson remembered. Gibson and Sullivan sprang into action, stealing Puddles from the room and saving him from whatever drunken confusion water fowl experience. The amiable web-footed bird came to live permanently with Gibson and Sullivan in their room in Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity; sometimes, when brothers fell asleep in the SAE house they would awake, covered in bread crumbs, to Puddles pecking at their stomachs.

Gibson, now 85 years old, was invited to return to Eugene as the honorary captain of the Ducks for their September 6 clash against Michigan State. Nominated by the Order of the O, a club for alumni who earned a varsity letter in an NCAA-accredited sport, Gibson was given tours of campus and the university’s newer athletics facilities.

The entire weekend was a very spirited one, as Gibson and his family were also guests at the University of Oregon Alumni Association’s Member Appreciation Night the evening before the game. Gibson was able to reflect on his time at Oregon as a student and athlete—an undergraduate adventure consisting of experiences both universally recognizable to UO graduates and uniquely specific to the history of the period.

“I remember when my dad dropped me off at the school,” Gibson recalled. “He was having a bad time leaving me off unknown, not with anybody, and I was so thrilled for him. That just opened the doors. I never regretted any experience and I was grateful for every opportunity.”

Gibson indeed welcomed opportunity. From playing football to joining SAE Fraternity, to eventually becoming a member of Friars—a campus honor society—Gibson was an active and involved member of the UO community.

One of Gibson’s most shining memories from his years at Oregon was the football team’s trip to the Cotton Bowl in 1949.

“It was a wonderful weekend because first of all, I can’t even remember the name of the girls’ school that was there, but they welcomed all of us,” Gibson laughed.

Gibson and his family enjoyed spirited activities during
their immersive weekend on campus.

Oregon faced Southern Methodist University in the bowl, which drew 69,000 fans. SMU led throughout the game and, though the Ducks rallied in the fourth quarter, the Mustangs held their lead to win 21-13. Gibson attributed the loss to a number of troubles that plagued the Ducks: it was the first time they had ever flown to a game, the families of the team arrived late, and the hotel arrangements were complicated by the segregation laws of the period.

Gibson remembered somberly, “At that time the black players on the team weren’t allowed to stay at the same hotel. They made special arrangements for those players to stay in private homes.”

It was a time of segregation and also a time of war. Despite receiving offers to play football professionally with the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Yanks, Gibson was drafted into the Air Force after graduating. “I’d lost a couple friends in Korea,” he said. “I wanted to get that out of the way. I had to face it.”

In the Air Force, Gibson was stationed in Ramstein, Germany, where he ended up coaching the Ramstein Rams, the base’s football team. Former Oregon teammate Norm Van Brocklin ’49 sent autographed photos from the United States, where he played for the Los Angeles Rams, to Germany for Gibson’s Ramstein Rams. Gibson coached his team to the European Air Force Championship, where they were runners-up.

Happily, Gibson also met his wife Ellen in Germany. Ellen, coincidentally a Michigan State alumna, was a teacher on the base. The two married and raised three sons.

Over the years Gibson has visited Eugene sporadically, and more than two decades ago was reunited with his 1949 Cotton Bowl team at a twenty-fifth anniversary reunion in Portland. This September, Gibson’s duties as honorary captain drew him to Eugene for an immersive three days.

Arriving on Friday morning, Gibson was whisked on a tour of campus with the UO Alumni Association. When asked if campus has changed much since his time at Oregon, Gibson responded, “There is no comparison.” After a brief break for lunch, Gibson was given a private tour of Oregon’s state-of-the-art football facilities, before attending the UOAA’s Member Appreciation Night, a spirited celebration at the Ford Alumni Center to gear alumni up for the game. Saturday morning, Gibson enjoyed a pre-game brunch with the football team before preparing for his duties as honorary captain. After waving to Autzen Stadium’s 98th-straight sell-out crowd of 59,456 fans, Gibson sat back and enjoyed the exciting face-off.

The Ducks came out strong, scoring the first touchdown of the game, but Michigan State replied and took the lead in the second quarter. At the half the Spartans led 24-18. After a field goal by Michigan State in the third quarter, Oregon rallied to score the final 28 points of the game, securing an impressive 46-27 victory in Autzen’s first ever clash featuring two top-ten teams.

A lot has changed since David Gibson’s time at Oregon. The Duck is no longer a live bird, segregation has been abolished, and the draft has been eliminated. Campus has grown enormously and the community has extended expansively. Yet, some things remain the same. As the leaves begin to turn this fall, Oregon students and alumni alike are as spirited as ever and the campus, now looking more yellow than green, prepares to welcome a new class of Ducks who will begin their own undergraduate adventures.

Smiling, Gibson said of his visit, “I was thrilled to be here at Oregon.”