Fellow firefighters pay tribute to community servant Keith Gabriel

Saturday, 12:33 p.m., “stations 21, 22 and 23 — last call for Keith Gabriel,” a dispatcher’s voice rang across Husky Field as Gabriel’s casket was placed upon the Sweet Home Fire Department’s antique engine.

In the distance the department siren sounded, paying homage to Gabriel throughout the community.

Hundreds of friends, firefighters and family members gathered at Husky field to pay their respects to firefighter and community booster Keith Gabriel who died from cancer last week.

The dispatch was part of closing ceremonies before Gabriel was transported by the Fire Department to Gilliland Cemetery.

“Keith was one of Sweet Home’s favorite sons,” Pastor Gary Hooley said. “He was loved by all who knew him.”

Throughout his life, he served and gave to his community, Pastor Hooley said.l “It’s also fitting that we’re gathered here at Husky Stadium, and it’s fitting that we’re surrounded by fire trucks.”

At Husky Field, crowds come to cheer on their teams, teams that Gabriel played on in high school, Pastor Hooley said. “I think we need to cheer. I think we need to give our best cheer to Keith Gabriel.”

The crowd clapped and whistled in Gabriel’s honor.

Pastor Terry Medina shared two passages of Scripture that Gabriel had asked be read at his funeral, life verses he “wants each one of you to hear.”

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)

“The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12 NIV)

“These are great words to live by,” Pastor Medina said. “And great words to be encouraged by.”

“We have known Keith, all of us, for a long time,” Pastor Steve Hopper said. Gabriel was born on Dec. 14, 1928, the youngest of four brothers growing up at Pleasant Valley. Growing up, fishing and exploring were among his favorite pastimes as well as trying to survive his older brothers, who once dangled him by his ankles over a cliff.

He attended Beaulah School with Mona Hyer Waibel, his own family and the Weber family. He walked to school with Mona and his sister Barbara, Pastor Hopper said. Gabriel got tired of walking to school with them and once stirred up a bee’s nest. The bees stung his sister and Mona. It worked, and they stopped walking to school with him.

Gabriel would later graduate from the same class as Mona, the Class of 1948, after growing up with her from the age of two.

While he was in the first grade, Gabriel shared shoes with his brothers, Pastor Hopper said. That stirred a personal quest for Gabriel as he headed up the Kiwanis Shoes for Kids program later in life.

When he was nine, a chip flew into his eye, and he lost vision in one eye permanently, Pastor Hopper said. In 1942, his mother became postmaster at Cascadia. His father was a lookout for the U.S. Forest Service.

In high school, Gabriel played varsity basketball and football. Several of his teammates attended services Saturday. He was student body president. He escorted May Day Queen Joanne Walker and he was voted the third best haircut. He played clarinet in band and was a member of the skeet club.

After high school, he planned to attend Oregon State University, but he didn’t have the money to do it, Pastor Hopper said. As a result, he had a heart for those with that need, and he helped establish the Sweet Home Alumni Foundation with its goal to provide a scholarship for every Sweet Home High School student who planned to attend college.

In 1950, he joined the Army and served in the Korean War. He worked in reconnaissance, scouting enemy positions behind enemy lines. He later requested a transfer and became a cook.

Upon returning to Sweet Home, Gabriel worked in a plywood mill and managed Sweet Home Bowling Lanes. He bowled several 300 games and could have played professionally, but he chose to settle down with a family.

In 1961, he married Vera McCuistian. On a dare from her sister, she sent a Valentine’s card to Gabriel. They talked and eventually were married. They had two children, Marty and Kelly.

While they were growing up, Gabriel supported those children in all of their activities, Pastor Hopper said. It didn’t stop there, he would help his daughter, now a teacher, by chaperoning field trips for her.

“Because Keith was so involved in the community,” Pastor Hopper said. “The kids would get roped into whatever he volunteered for.”

Keith later worked for Epps Furniture for 17 years before he completed fire sciences course work at Linn-Benton Community College. He was hired from among four applicants to be Sweet Home’s fire marshal.

“Keith was always known for having a camera around his neck,” Pastor Hopper said.

Gabriel listed his hobbies as gardening, golfing, fishing and hunting, Pastor Hopper said, but “his hobbies were really community service. He did go hunting, but he would take more pictures than shots with his gun.”

Gabriel also painted – One time, Pastor Hopper said. That painting of Cascadia Falls graced the front of the funeral program.

Former Sweet Home Fire Chief and former state Deputy Fire Marshal Dean Gray said he could recall Gabriel drawing pictures on his coffee cups during meetings, “little works of art.”

“The most significant thing I’ve noticed about Keith is his manner with the public,” former Fire Chief Joe Mengore said. “He finds a way to take care of any problem.”

“Keith was the kind of leader that could lead without being pushy,” Pastor Hopper said. “He led by example.”

That led to high visibility in myriad community volunteer activities, Pastor Hopper said. “We can brag a little on Keith because he never did.”

The New Era Publisher Alex Paul “really said it very well” in last week’s editorial, Pastor Hopper said. It was hard to say no to Gabriel who had given so much of himself already volunteering countless hours.

“He got help not by pushing but by persuasion and example,” Pastor Hopper said.

“We’ve had so many great times together, our hunting trips when you’d rather take a camera than a gun,” retired Assistant Fire Chief Jim Warner said. “You were taking pictures or sleeping on a rock under the son. You were a wonderful friend. I’m proud of you.”

Members of Gabriel’s family and his friends shared their thoughts and memories during Saturday’s service.

One friend said he was up for an award against Gabriel. When Gabriel won the award, he told his friend it should have gone to him.

“I wasn’t even fit to touch his sandals,” Gabriel’s friend said Saturday at the funeral. That award belonged to Gabriel.

“He’s a fine man, hard worker, somebody we’re going to miss a lot,” Mona Waibel said. “He had many loves, his family and community work.”

She was proud of his alumni work, she said. “It’s fitting that his funeral will be held on that field. He played many games on that field, and he was our student body president. He was a very special man.”

“When you asked him how he was, he was always fantastic,” Battalion Chief Doug Emmert said. Emmert had worked with Keith for 20 years. “If you were a little bit down, he always had a Scripture picked out, and it made you realize life’s not that bad.”

“When he was in the hospital this last time,” Pastor Medina said. “When he saw me, he reached out and took my hand, and it made me feel like I was the most important person around. I will be a better person for having known him.”

“He was one of the most complete and dedicated servants I ever knew,” former The New Era reporter Pete Porter said. “I know he’s heard the words, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.'”

Reading Matthew 22 in the Bible, SHHS teacher Rob Younger was reminded of Gabriel. Jesus Christ said that the greatest commandment was “to love the Lord your God with all your heart,” and the second was to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Gabriel embodied that, Younger said. He put God first, then he loved his neighbors as he did himself.

“He had life in perspective,” Younger said. Until the time when Younger can meet Gabriel again, “I’m going to keep those perspectives in my life, too.”

Pastor Hopper closed the ceremony with John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him.”

“I want to invite you, if you haven’t trusted Christ, to listen to the words of this song and know and have the kind of faith that Keith did,” Pastor Hopper said. With that, Anna Parker led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace.”

Following that, Gabriel was placed on the antique fire engine. The dispatcher gave last call for him, fire engines and ambulances from Sweet Home, Lebanon, Albany and Brownsville joined the processional to Gilliland Cemetery where Gabriel was buried.