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Bob Gibson was blessed by friendship of a former Tulsa preacher and fantasy camp catcher — and vice versa

Bob Gibson was blessed by friendship of a former Tulsa preacher and fantasy camp catcher — and vice versa

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Terry married Mary on April 20, 1968 — a day Bob Gibson pitched a complete game against the Cubs.

After his wife died 25 days ago, Terry Rush received a text message from Bob Gibson’s wife. Wendy Gibson wanted Terry to know that she and Bob were thinking of him.

“And within days,” Terry said, “I’m texting Wendy to say, ‘Hey, friend. I’m really sorry you’re going through it, too.’”

This is the story of Bob Gibson’s influence on a self-proclaimed “common man” Cardinals fan — and the uncommon story of a fan’s influence on Bob Gibson.

“I just loved Bob,” Terry said of Gibson, the legendary pitcher who died last Friday at 84. “I wanted him to know that he was valuable off the field.”

Born June 18, 1947, Terry was named after Terry Moore, an outfielder on the Cardinals’ 1946 World Series winners. Terry Rush is from Memphis — not Tennessee, but Missouri, a small farming town in the northeast corner of the state. His family was religious, but the only praying Terry did as a kid was for Gibson or Curt Flood or Lou Brock.

“Baseball was my religion,” he said.

But after Mary suffered multiple miscarriages, Terry gave a preacher a chance. Soon, Terry himself became a preacher — first in Quincy, Illinois, and then Tulsa.

He continued to follow the Cardinals from these different parts of Cardinals Country. About four decades ago, he heard about a fantasy camp. He didn’t have much money — and he and Mary had three kids at home — so he sold some personal items to afford the opportunity. It was glorious, a different kind of religious experience. He told the congregation the story — and after church that day, a couple told him they would pay for him to annually attend Cardinals fantasy camp.

“He and Gibby got to be buddies,” said Judy Egelhoff, who ran the camp for several years. “Terry was one of those guys — no kind of athlete at all, but just the sweetest man. By the time camp got there, I hadn’t slept, just trying to pull all this stuff together. And I would run into Terry in the hall. I can still see his face. He’d be coming one way and I’d be coming from the other, and he’d raised hands up over his head and say: ‘Judy!’ And I’d say: ‘Terry!’ And he’d say: ‘I’m here!’”

Terry’s first memory of Gibson at fantasy camp was the Hall of Famer seated at a locker, staring at the floor.

“Wow — he is not glad to be here,” Terry recalled himself thinking. “And he wasn’t.”

But Terry understood that whenever Gibson was in public and around Cardinal fans, the legend was overwhelmed by people who wanted something from him. But Terry soon made a calming impression on him. Gibson started calling him “Preach.”

“And all of a sudden, Bob started high-fiving the guys on his team at camp,” Terry said, “and Flood and Tim McCarver said: ‘We have never, ever met this Bob Gibson.’ And what happened was that he finally was around fans in a relaxed situation where they didn’t want something from him. They just wanted to be around him. And he became funny and he became transformed to a new person.”

Terry befriended Wendy Gibson, too. Bob always thought that was special. One year at camp, Bob was pitching and Terry was catching — incidentally, imagine being the catcher at Busch Stadium for Bob Gibson? With some family in the first rows and a guy in the batter’s box, Gibson kept telling Terry to turn around and wave to Wendy in the stands. Terry was trying to focus on the at-bat.

“So we got out of the inning, and I ran out to Bob, I met him halfway,” Terry recalled. “And I said, ‘Where’s Wendy?’ And he says, ‘Right there.’ And she’s waving at me. And I said, ‘Bob, why did you keep yelling that to me?’ And he smiled and said, ‘Because, Preach, when you turned around to wave at her, I was going to hit you in the back!’ He was ready to nail me!”

Gibson was drawn to Terry. So was Curt Flood. Terry befriended both of his teenage sports idols. When Flood died in 1997, Terry was asked to speak at the funeral. So was Gibson. Afterward, Gibson drove Terry to lunch.

When they both attended a fantasy camp at the Field of Dreams in Iowa, Terry and Bob stayed at the same hotel, spent time together.

“He gave me a ride to the airport,” Terry said. “We just enjoyed being together. … He said, ‘He’d say, Preach, I’ve never seen a player like you — you get worse every year.’”

Terry is 73. In recent years, he stopped attending fantasy camp and retired from ministry. In the past year, as he heard Gibson’s health was deteriorating, Terry would send hand-written letters to Gibson’s home in Nebraska. And he would text with Wendy.

In that same time frame, Terry’s own wife was ill.

“Mary was very soft spoken and quiet,” Terry said. “And very supportive and loving. And when she was dying, she wasn’t able to speak to us for about three days. And at 4 o’clock in the morning, we had a hospice nurse living with us and said, ‘Terry, I think she’s passing, I want you to come in.’ So I went in. And I hadn’t been able to visit with Mary for two or three days. And I went in and sat down beside her.

“She opened her eyes and she said, ‘Ohhhhhhh! It’s beautiful!’ And closed her eyes and died. And I was right there for that. Isn’t that the perfect ending? For three days, nothing, and then this is at the very end. Her eyes just shined. What a blessing.”

Soon, he received a text from the Gibsons.

A few weeks later, Wendy received a condolence text from Terry.

And the two widows texted back and forth.


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Benjamin Hochman

@hochman on Twitter

bhochman@post-dispatch.com

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