A Tragic Legacy Leaves Its Mark

Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:41pm

Despite the whirlwind of events in the past decade, in which Jack Gibson has grown from a 15-year-old with a learner’s permit to a grown man with a career and a mortgage, the anniversary of his father’s death every year is marked with the same sounds that stir up the same memories.

“If you’d hear the bagpipes and see the color guard, you’d understand,” Gibson, 25, said. “There’s nothing like it.”

Gibson is the oldest son of Detective John Gibson, one of two Capitol Police officers shot and killed by a crazed gunman in the Capitol on July 24, 1998.

The younger Gibson, who has his father’s Irish face and friendly demeanor, is now a Capitol Police officer himself, working in the first-responder unit.

“Obviously, I felt a lot closer to things once I put on the uniform,” Jack said. “It’s hard, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Jack is one of three children of Detective Gibson. Kristen, 27, lives in Los Angeles and works as an accountant, and Danny, 24, works for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, former Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer. Their mother, Evelyn, lives in Woodbridge, Va.

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July 24, 1998, the day Russell Weston barreled into the Capitol building with a loaded weapon and killed Detective Gibson and Officer Jacob “J.J.” Chestnut, was considered a national tragedy that forever changed security measures in Washington, D.C., and indelibly changed how the Hill is guarded.

For the Gibsons, July 24 is a day of tradition.

For 10 years, the Gibson family and a handful of close friends have driven to Arlington National Cemetery in the morning of July 24 to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before drifting over to John Gibson’s burial site. While the family maintains similar traditions each July 24, the day is anything but routine.

“The same emotions stir up every year,” Jack said. “It doesn’t get any easier.”

Not unlike the children of long-serving Hill employees, Jack Gibson was drawn to the Capitol from an early age because of his father’s 18-year career as a detective. His mother had anxiety about his decision, but Jack was more concerned about receiving special treatment than anything else.

“I didn’t want anyone to give me a break, and I didn’t want to ride anyone’s coattails,” Jack said.

While colleagues hail his worth ethic and attitude on the job, Jack, who majored in criminal justice at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., had plenty of patrons on the Capitol Police force eager to hire another Gibson.

“Once he decided to be a police officer, I was hoping he’d come up here,” said Sgt. Jack DeWolfe, a longtime friend to both John Gibson and his family. “It’s something he doesn’t try to dwell on, but for us old-timers, it’s great to have him here.”

Over the past decade, DeWolfe has served as the Gibsons’ liaison to the Capitol Police. He describes the role as a “buffer” between the family and police department, but DeWolfe’s attachment to the Gibsons is as strong as his Massachusetts accent.

DeWolfe and John Gibson were each Bay State natives who moved to Washington for police jobs. They carpooled to the Capitol every day for years, bantering about the Boston Red Sox and talking about their five kids, who between the two families range in age from 23 to 27.

“We can talk to each other and understand each other,” DeWolfe said of the two families, who spend nearly every holiday and birthday together. DeWolfe’s daughters, Lauren and Danielle, were the maids of honor at Kristen Gibson’s wedding in May. The Gibson brothers walked their sister down the aisle and gave her away.

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Jack Gibson went through officer training with a handful of Capitol Police offspring; there was already a Chestnut legacy on the force, Officer Jason Culpepper, the son-in-law of the late officer.

Wen-Ling Chestnut, who was married to J.J. Chestnut for 23 years, said that even before her son-in-law joined the department in 2003, she had constant contact with officers who wanted to share their own stories of her husband.

“I heard things I didn’t even know,” she said, like how her husband often brought fresh vegetables from his well-manicured garden for his co-workers, or that he mentored young officers and instilled in them the same discipline he carried from his Air Force days.

The stories clearly comfort Wen-Ling, who was born in China and met her husband in Taiwan, where he was stationed following a stint in the Vietnam War. However charming the outpouring has been over the years, things have not gotten easier.

“Everyone thinks it’s a birthday or an anniversary that’s hard, but sometimes it’s just regular days,” she said amid tears. “Even when I’m in a happy situation, there’s sadness, too.”

Wen-Ling stopped working as a computer programmer after her husband was killed. She focused on her kids and kept to herself.

The Chestnuts’ son, William, was entering his sophomore year in college in 1998, but he transferred from Florida A&M to Howard to be closer to home. William earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Howard with scholarships from the Capitol Police and other organizations for the survivors of fallen officers, and is now a physical therapist in the D.C. area.

The couple’s daughter, Karen, graduated from the University of Maryland and married Culpepper, her high school sweetheart, in 2001 in a small ceremony that included a tribute to her father.

“She thought if her father couldn’t walk her down the aisle, she didn’t want a wedding,” Wen-Ling said, adding that William was married two years ago by the same Baptist pastor who presided over J.J.’s funeral, which received national coverage.

Wen-Ling joined a community group after her husband passed away, and connected with several other widows, including one who lost her husband in the Vietnam War. The two drive to Arlington cemetery occasionally to visit their husbands’ graves.

This year, Wen-Ling will go on vacation to Aruba a few days after marking the July 24 anniversary — it will be her first true getaway since her husband, J.J., was killed. She will be visiting her Capitol Police liaison, retired Sgt. Richard Lopez, who was Officer Chestnut’s roommate at police training camp.

The Gibsons, meanwhile, will take their annual trip to Arlington in the morning and join Wen-Ling and others at the Capitol in the afternoon for a special ceremony, where officers will lay a wreath at the memorial door and plant a tree on the Capitol grounds.

While his family typically keeps their remembrances private, Jack Gibson, relaxed and easygoing behind his policeman’s uniform, recognizes how special these ceremonies are to the thousands of people who want to remember his father and Officer Chestnut.

Said simply: “It’s how you keep them alive.”