Last Wednesday, I was able to get the day off and drove to Austin. An event was planned that night at the beautiful Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to celebrate the life of a good friend from my childhood who sadly passed away at home on March 21 after suffering a heart attack.
Michael Lydell “Gip” Gipson was a beloved member of our 1,000-plus-student Class of ’78 at Conroe High, and he’d been healthy, active and high on life, spending over six years living for every moment with the love he’d found in 2014, his fiancee, Melissa LeBoeuf Tothero. The sadness of Mike’s early departure at age 61 when he and Melissa — along with Mike’s grown children Kyle and Molly and Melissa’s twin daughters Lauren and Sierra — had so much still to share and experience together is immeasurable.
In addition to the event in Austin, a gathering of CHS friends/classmates took place the previous Saturday night in Conroe, but I wasn’t able to attend because Kay and I were at the Brad Paisley concert in Dallas. Mike’s best friend Jeff Henke, our class valedictorian and Tigers quarterback, attended both and said there’d been a nice turnout back home. Jeff and Mike have been tightest of buddies since our days at Washington Junior High, all the way through high school and our shared path through Texas A&M, where they were roommates for three years. The loss of Mike has been especially tough on Jeff because they’ve been so close for so long.
I decided to leave Arlington for Austin a few hours early for the 7 to 10 p.m. event (about a 3 1/2-hour drive) so I could spend some time taking in the beauty of the wildflower center’s magnificent gardens. (If you haven’t been and get a chance to visit, you should.) The entire property covers 300 acres, which includes 9 acres of gardens featuring wildflowers and native plants, and a vast expanse of trails. In about an hour and a half, I barely got to cover a small fraction, but it was long enough to work up a major sweat (good thing I brought a change of clothes, a washrag, soap and deodorant!).
The gathering for Mike, attended by family, Austin-area friends and co-workers, was perfect, with many memories shared, music, food and drinks. It started with a service in the auditorium, including video of Mike performing on the guitar at a coffee shop and a great video/slide show featuring audio that included his voice on phone messages and other wonderful touches. Melissa and the four kids all gave moving tributes to the man they loved so dearly, sharing memories and stories that brought laughs, tears and painted a spot-on picture of the kind, giving and loving guy I’ve known for over four decades.
With Melissa’s blessing, I wanted to share some excerpts from her memorable eulogy/tribute, because her loving words are more fitting than I could ever come up with in three lifetimes. Amazingly, the day of the memorial marked the seventh anniversary of when they met — at Austin’s famed Continental Club, when a mutual friend introduced them and Mike’s first words to Melissa were: “I have just one question for you, Melissa: Will you dance with me?” The friend was none other than Deanna Peterson, the mother of the music duo The Peterson Brothers, who are Melissa and Mike’s godsons.
She described the 6 years, 7 months and 3 days they shared as “true joy, of the deepest love, the happiest, truest partnership, the most honest and trusted emotional intimacy that I could ever imagine.” Mike, she said, “radiated Love and kindness like no one else I have ever encountered.”
“Our relationship gave each of us the experience of being deeply understood and truly accepted for perhaps the very first time in either of our lives,” she said. “We both felt completely supported and utterly loved — and it was through this lens that he and I built a life together and shared everything. I am so very grateful that I had the opportunity in this life to experience such a Love. I will carry him with me always.”
So much of what Melissa said had me, and I’m sure many others in attendance, nodding our heads in affirmation. “This man was genuinely good.” “Michael made people’s day.” “That man gave wise advice.” “That smile of his … that smile would light up a room, and it lit up my heart and soul.”
In their six-plus years together, Melissa had grown to know Gip — everything that made him who he was — so completely. Her Aggie electrical engineer, she said, had “engineered a beautiful life for himself.”
“Michael had an extraordinary ability to truly see himself in an objective way and to make changes when he felt he needed to,” she said. “I’ve never known anyone so capable of pivoting, turning on a dime … to quickly and efficiently exact positive changes in his own life.
“My experience of him over the years was that he was a progressively, increasingly happy and grateful person. He became more true to himself each passing year. During what were to be his final years, he was achieving everything that he wanted.”
Melissa talked about the many outings and trips Mike planned and pulled off for them, how he did everything in such a big way because he “loved to LIVE and he was so good at it.”
“I used to say to him, ‘Michael Gipson, you my dear are A LOT.’ He was a lot, and I wish that we’d had more time,” she said.
So many awesome people are taken from this life so early. Mike was at the top of that list. One of the qualities that made him so incredibly special was his ability to make people feel like they were so important, like nothing else mattered to him but them, whether they were together or on the phone.
“As is often the case with those who have been fortunate enough to be living their best life … he was incredibly generous and kind to everyone he met and even to those with whom he came across only tangentially in life. He made an impression on people. Michael was so present with everyone. His energy made people feel acknowledged and cared for,” Melissa said.
I had never met Melissa before that night, and we talked for a few minutes while getting food and drinks after the service. She was genuinely happy to meet me and said Mike had told her about me, which touched me, since aside from seeing each other at reunions and helping organize them, he and I haven’t had a lot of contact since our days at A&M. She exclaimed about me being the wonderful writer, as she’d seen some of what I’d written and posted about Mike after he died. I told her about the visit Mike and I had at our 40-year Conroe High reunion in 2018, when he was so full of joy about all the great things happening in his life — the most special of which, of course, was her.
In her tribute, Melissa said she felt fortunate to have been able to be “so close to this extraordinary human during some very fun, love-filled and joyful years. I am honored that in a sense I was the person who got to walk him home.”
I won’t steal Melissa’s closing thunder, because they’re words we all can live by, if we’ll just slow down and take each day the way Mike did, enjoying the company of every person we meet, embracing every opportunity to learn or do something new, and loving as hard as we can. Take it away, Melissa:
“In his honor, we can remember Michael and share that amazing Michael-ness — that unique effervescence, his brilliant exhilaration, his uncanny exuberance, those over-the-top dance moves, and his fierce emoji game, and his extraordinary generosity of spirit — we can share that special Michael-ness with everyone we encounter (even those whom we meet only tangentially).
“So I have a proposal … In the words of the genius artist “P as in purple” formally known as Prince,
“Let’s Go Crazy …
“Let’s all Over-tip, Over-emoji, be outrageously present for our friends and family, let’s give of ourselves to others generously. Let’s laugh and live joyfully. Let’s LOVE each other, take care of each other, and let’s dance and dance and dance, and dance.
“So, here on the 7th anniversary of Michael and my first meeting, I have just one question for you beautiful people, will you dance with me?”