Pete Gilpin ’55 and The Fonz

When I opened the June issue of Reed, the first thing I saw was the name Peter Gilpin. It hit me like a blow. 

Peter Gilpin ’55 was an important figure in my time at Reed. He, Bob Gillespie ’55, Glen Shipley ’55, and I shared the upper floor of a home owned by Ms. Ferguson on the hill above campus. We shared the kitchen with her. Ms. Ferguson supplemented her income at a bakery with student rent after her husband died.

Pete was the “Fonz” to us. He seemed to have a handle on life, moving through it as smoothly as a trout. Pete was a good poker player. I remember marveling how his poker winnings enabled him to fly to Hawaii over one vacation break.

He was scheduled to begin my education in shooting pool one evening at a local bar. At the time, I was too young to even be in the place. A short time later, a large truck pulled up outside the bar and parked. I ran for my car, screamed away, and missed a corner on the way home, ending up on someone’s lawn. Pete was unfazed. The truck turned out to belong to a utility company.

Pete owned an immaculate 1939 Mercury convertible. More to the point, it had dual pipes and an Edelbrock manifold with three Stromberg 97 carburetors. In those days, performance comparisons were made by lining up two cars in contention, side by side, facing toward the library at the beginning of the school street; on a signal, both cars would accelerate toward the library and the hard left turn at the end of the drag strip. I had a stock 1941 Ford two-door. Pete had me for lunch.

Pete used to make funny little clay creatures. I can’t remember what he called them. At one time or another, I think all of us tried to make them, but the only ones that looked right were Pete’s. 

Pete’s girlfriend was Louise Palmer (Gerity ’55). He used to have long conversations with her while seated on the throne. Many people used to compliment Pete on his aftershave. This was from a bottle of air freshener in the bathroom.

We all shared the refrigerator, and we all used to leave nasty notes to each other on food containers left in the refrigerator. All of which were purported to be from our landlady, Ms. Ferguson.

Glen Shipley was a quiet pre-med student. One night, some guys were talking tough to us at a table in a bar. Glen didn’t say anything, but he quietly crushed a beer can with one hand (this was before aluminum cans), and the toughness left the conversation.

A few years after graduation, Pete came to the apartment my wife and I were renting in San Francisco. I had cooked a batch of barbecue spare ribs—some were good, but I had burned some. These were not displayed to Pete. After we finished the good ones, Pete allowed that he could eat a few more with no discomfort. I apologized for burning the first batch, but we could not serve the burned ones to our guest. I will never forget his response: “Look away for a few minutes.” He then ate every remaining rib.

Before the 50th anniversary of our graduation in 2005, I called Pete in Hawaii to try to get him to come. He explained that his health did not allow him to fly. That was the last time we talked.

I will never forget him.

—Joe Hadden ’55

Ojai, California