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Requiem for a Wayfaring Professor

Gibbs Milliken: 1935-2007

By John Jefferson

Gibbs Milliken, this magazine's gear and gadget guru, contributing editor of the Field Test column since January 2000, and author/photographer of the annual Christmas gift guide, passed away on November 20, 2007.

Many knew him through his columns. That was a start. But a lot about him didn't come across in print. He was a quintessential journalist whose professionalism prevented him from injecting his own story into his work; seldom did he use I, me, my or mine. Those who knew him, however, could see his years in the outdoors behind the words he penned. His mission here was to honestly inform readers of products and their usefulness. He did it well, even working on columns and the December 2007 issue gift guide from his hospital room. His work – and spirit – will be missed.

Unless someone told you, you might have trouble realizing he was a college professor of fine art and Latin American studies, an authority on indigenous cultures, possessed a limitless background and interests in all things natural, an Amazon rainforest adventurer who led expeditions into South America and Mexico and traveled the Caribbean islands and Alaska. Sound familiar?

Introducing him once as a luncheon speaker a few years ago, I said that I suspected he might have been the inspiration behind the Indiana Jones character in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Think about it: a learned college professor, an authority on South American native cultures, a khaki-clad outdoorsman ever-ready for the next adventure and as anxious to learn more about the natural world as any of his students. Indie's fedora would have fit him well.

The main difference between Professor Milliken and Professor Jones was that Harrison Ford always looked concerned and foreboding; Milliken, however, lapped up life and the people in it. His countenance bore deep laugh wrinkles to prove it. At the Hula Hut restaurant on Lake Austin one evening, I watched as his entourage stopped by – a mixed bag of young people all delighting in the sophisticated wit and boundless wisdom of a man three times their age who was forever young. David Farmer, to whom I am grateful for supplying information on Gibbs, delivered the eulogy at Milliken's memorial service. Farmer referred to him as "a Pied Piper who gathered people around him with his enjoyment of life and his wonderful stories."

It is said that people are often made to appear larger in death than they were in life. In Milliken's case, that's impossible. He was the real deal.

He grew up around Kerrville and learned early about the Hill Country and the Guadalupe River. He and a cousin, Lee Dewey, even had a secret hiding place behind Heart of the Hills Inn where they kept their secret treasures – probably the start of his collections. Milliken graduated from Schreiner Institute and attended the University of Colorado. He received his bachelor of science degree from Trinity University.

One of his first jobs was with Texas Game and Fish Commission, forerunner of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He worked for legendary wildlife biologist Bob Ramsey, assisting with deer surveys one summer during the mid-'50s. Doe deer were just becoming legal game, and Milliken helped lay out and walk the original deer census lines in Kerr, Mason and Gillespie counties.

"We had 300 miles of census lines to walk before deer season," Ramsey said, "and Gibbs helped walk all of it. He was fresh, young and didn't know a lot, but he was quick to learn."

"One day, we were camped near a big cave and he called me over to look at a 'real pretty snake.' It turned out to be a colorful copperhead." Ramsey, a walking textbook on wildlife, no doubt greatly influenced young Milliken. "He fell in love with wildlife and the department that summer," Ramsey added. Gibbs had planned to visit Ramsey recently. They had worked together more than 50 years ago, but their friendship transcended the years.

Milliken's interest in art, photography and nature led to a position as curator of natural science and exhibitions at the prestigious Witte Museum in San Antonio. He painted in the evenings after the museum closed, and collectors were beginning to notice his work. One museum visitor, an attractive school teacher named Marie Splittgerber, particularly appreciated his paintings. Little did she know at the time that within a year she would be married to a man who would take her on adventures about which most people can only dream.

At their wedding, Gibbs topped their cake with two large blue Morpho butterflies he had previously collected. That should have been a hint of things to come. Their home would soon become repository for other collections that included fossils, plants, animal specimens, seashells, butterflies, ceremonial masks, blow guns and countless other artifacts, as well as extensive photographic files, paints, easels, canvases and enough hunting and fishing gear to stock a store.

Pursuing his talent and interest in art, Gibbs completed a master of arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. That opened the door to a 41-year teaching career at the University of Texas at Austin, and that in turn enabled his extensive travels in Latin America.

As a professor in the Fine Arts Department at UT, he taught painting, drawing, design and photography. He was also a thesis supervisor for graduate students. One of his students, Chris Scroger, summed up Milliken's academic uniqueness as an avid outdoorsman who doubled as an arts educator: "No stodgy, tweed-covered old poot was he, but dapperly attired in the most khaki he could don, Gibbs veritably twinkled as he stood before bemused classes and regaled them with his most recent field exploits."

It might seem a stretch from the fine arts department to leading expeditions into the Amazon. Professor Milliken didn't see a problem. At UT's Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, Virginia Hagerty said they didn't either. Their entire faculty, in fact, comes from other departments. Milliken provided countless photographs for the institute and became a research fellow, director of the Organization for Tropical Research and curator of their ethnographic collection (items that represent the folk culture of a community). They, too, called him Indiana Jones. For 12 years, Gibbs led two or more trips a year to South America, primarily to Venezuela. According to Marie, who accompanied him occasionally, these trips altered lives and careers. It no doubt impacted hers and the lives of daughters Tamara and Adana, who made the Mexico and U.S. trips.

Doug Galbi, brother of Gibbs' son-in-law, Dwight, joined one of the treks. Galbi asked what to bring. Famous for providing extensive packing lists, Gibbs told Galbi one of the most important items was a yellow rubber ducky. Why? Because it would keep the crocodiles away, he replied. Galbi took his ducky, bathed in the river with it by his side and came back with all his limbs. And the professor added another story.

Tom Vinson, an Austin attorney, went on a South America trip, too. He spoke of Gibbs taking medical supplies to the Indians. The professor was a good Boy Scout, known to pack along everything he might need. Vinson said they were in the jungle looking for a jaguar cave when one of the girls fell, severely cutting her leg. A hundred miles from medical help, the resourceful Milliken treated the wound himself until they could get to a village clinic.

Vinson had met Milliken on Lake Austin. Dressed in safari clothes, Gibbs was fly-fishing for carp, using French fries for bait. It worked. He landed several. The professor held the state record for common carp for a while and still holds five water body records, including a 33-pound common carp and a 59-pound smallmouth buffalo, both from Lady Bird Lake. All were caught on a fly rod!

He observed carp congregating around waterfront restaurants, feeding on handouts, and decided they would also bite an artificial french fry. He fabricated one out of a strip of yellowed foam rubber, and it worked, too. The last time we were on the lake together, he told me he was planning to catch the state record near the Hula Hut.

That day, he was testing a long-handled dip net. As we carried his fine wooden canoe to the water, the long handle caught on a rock and snapped in two. Gibbs looked disappointed. Then he shrugged, and said, "Well, that's something I needed to find out before I wrote about it!"

Carp are not popular with most Texas fishermen, as Gibbs acknowledged in an article he wrote for the 2006 TPW Outdoor Annual. He questioned whether they were trash fish or trophies. So why did he fish for them? That was the sportsman in him. It was a challenge to hook one and land it. He approached hunting the same way; he didn't want it too easy, often hunting with a bow.

Marie said it well in describing what made him who he was: "The never-ending thirst for knowledge and the quest for the unique, the obscure, the unexplored, the overlooked – significant discoveries that may lay hidden in the paths less traveled."

You could see it in his art: finely detailed paintings of natural subjects – ants crawling across the canvas, a fly, sand and grass. He had even painted moon surface pictures for NASA's Apollo Project. He was still painting at age 71 and had recently hired Austin architect Gus Voelzel to remodel his studio near the Pedernales River.

As well-traveled as he was, Marie says that 45 years of fishing trips to Port Aransas were probably their fondest memories. Tamara and Adana spoke of Port Aransas, trips to the Four Corners area and beyond, often with no defined destination and a slow driver who stopped to read every historical marker, so engrossed in his photography that he would forget to eat. Or find a place to spend the night. Once, the hotels were full when he got around to looking for lodging and the four slept in the Suburban with all Gibbs' gear.

In notes for an autobiography, he wrote, "Travel should be to expect the unexpected. Just be ready to adapt."

His brother-in-law, John Squires, fished with him at Port Aransas. They hadn't caught much and were down to two shrimp. Gibbs, like Babe Ruth, called his shot by saying, "John, watch this!" as he cast out and nailed a 24-inch trout. With the last shrimp, he yelled, "Now, watch this!" and landed a 26-inch redfish!

Squires says, "I knew at that point that Gibbs had a special place with the Almighty!"

If he isn't in Heaven, it's probably because he's still standing at the gate getting to know Saint Peter, maybe talking fishing.

And neither wants to quit.

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