By Gary Gray
George Gough is an anomaly — an irregular occurrence along life’s traditional aging pathway.
At 93, Gough’s eyes are clear and sharply focused. He does not wear glasses, works out six days a week and sports a never-ending impish grin.
Last week, about 200 people gathered in Johnson City for a family reunion and to celebrate his 93rd birthday. Old photos were stacked on tables and lined along fences. He was particularly proud of a gift-wrapped bottle of Jack Daniels that he walked back to his truck.
“He’s one of the finest men I’ve ever known,” his niece Lois Durham said at the celebration. “He’s a caregiver. He always has been.”
Gough accepted the News & Neighbor’s request to visit his home in Johnson City’s Oak Park neighborhood for a chat a few days after the event.
He was born in 1924 — the youngest of 13 children. His birthplace and family home was a log cabin in the Red Fork community of Unicoi County, built by his grandfather in the early 1800s.
“I went to a one-room elementary school in Red Fork,” he said. “I didn’t enter high school right away, because the boys teased me. Instead, I cut timber and plowed fields for 10 cents an hour. I wanted to get bigger.”
After working for two years, he entered Erwin High School, where he and his brother walked three miles from Red Fork to Limestone Cove to board the bus.
Durham recalled that Dalton, his middle name, wrapped his feet with cloth to stave off frostbite in the winter. She also remembered he would stop by an uncle’s mill two to three times a week to pick up a sack of corn.
“A kid and I in agricultural class got in a fight once, and the teacher hit us both in the butt with a T-square,” Gough said. “Well, when I was hit my pants split right down the middle.”
Gough’s parents raised almost everything they ate, and he remembers his father’s team of horses pulling a wagon to the edge of Johnson City to sell what fruits and vegetables he could.
“He gave what he couldn’t sell to the poor,” Gough recalled. “All you could see was this crowd of people with their hands up in the air grabbing for food. I lived during the depression, but we were better off than a lot of people, because we lived on 100 acres and raised cattle and grew our own food.”
“I wanted to do my part, so I joined the Navy,” he said. “I started training in 1943, and by late March we were on our way to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.”
The spry U.S. Navy veteran served as a gunner in World War II, escorting troops to secure locations along the Aleutian Island chain.
“We hauled supplies and took islands along the way,” he said. “I would look for attacks, and fortunately we didn’t have a lot of confrontations.”
So, was he ever scared?
“Constantly,” he said. “What we dreaded more than anything were submarines. Fortunately, the Japanese were not as good as the Germans.”
He was enlisted for about three years. During that time he was paid $48 per month, and faithfully mailed $24 of that to his parents back in Unicoi County.
Gough’s daughter Myra Paessler remarked about her father’s giving character a few days earlier at the family reunion. She said his sense of family made him a standout.
“That and his gratefulness,” she said. “He’s of the highest integrity. I have a paperweight that says ‘Do the Right Thing.’ That speaks to what he is.”
When the affable Gough got back from the service, he bought a new 1948 Mercury, while still in his early 20s.
“It was one year after my father had died, and I stayed in Unicoi with my mother,” he said. “For more than a year, I drove all the way to Eastman every day. I worked there a total of 15 years as a tool-and-die maker.
“I then went to work for my father-in-law at Accurate Machine Product Corporation in Johnson City and later bought the business. I worked there until I was 75 and then sold the business to my son.
Gough then spent years taking care of his ailing first wife Margaret. After her passing, he met his wife Marie. He volunteered at the Johnson City Medical Center for 13 years, driving people to and from the hospital’s entrance.
Today he enjoys playing the guitar – including a rare 1937 Martin — and attending various country “jams” and sing-a-longs. He continues to be quick witted, with a great sense of humor – and humility.
How does a 93-year-old remain vibrant?
“We’re happy,” he said. “You’ve got to move. You’ve got to stay active – both mentally and physically. I think one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned was when I was 12. We were having an old-time church service at Red Fork, and a visiting group told us: Whether there is or is not a hell, it still pays to do the right thing.”