Gibson Coleman, who died last week at 62, did not seem to revere the cancer that shaped much of his life.
The Anniston native and community banker had a malignant brain tumor develop behind his right eye in the summer of 1976, the summer he graduated from Anniston High School and was looking forward to college at the University of Alabama.
Cancer treatment had yet to take its greatest strides in development — the radiation and chemotherapy killed the tumor, sure, but they took many of the healthy cells along with it. By 1981, Coleman was blind in his right eye and had it surgically removed.
His younger sister, Dodie Hill, said this week that he wasn’t self-conscious about losing his eye, or the medically necessary reconstructive surgeries he undertook.
“Gibson would be at a high school basketball game and a little kid would come up and say, ‘What happened to you?’ Little kids are totally honest, you know,” Hill recalled. “He would get down on his knee to eye level with the little kid and say, ‘Have you ever had a booboo?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, I had a booboo.’”
It was decided that a glass eye would complicate reconstruction, Coleman told The Star in a 2015 story, which already required a piece of one of his ribs and various grafts from his back. Instead, he wore a small, white eyepatch.
Coleman never let himself be cowed by anxiety over his appearance, Hill said, and in fact loved being around people too much to consider stepping away from the community where he grew up. He was a giver, she said, generous to a fault and always worrying for the comfort of others, something Hill said he learned from their parents and in church.
“He was such a strong, faithful servant,” Hill said.
Coleman was a devout Christian, first and foremost, she said, and a Boy Scout (he would’ve been a camp counselor for the scouts in the summer of ’76, if not for the tumor). He was a member of the swim team in high school, and when the family went to Logan Martin Lake to ski, he was right at home on the water.
“When he was skiing, his face had a smile as big as the sun,” Hill remembered.
As an adult, Coleman was involved in several extracurriculars, including membership in the Anniston Rotary Club, work with Habitat for Humanity and organizing the Sunny King Memorial Golf Tournament. In his work life, he was the vice president of Southern States Bank.
Jack Swift, chief operating officer and executive vice president at the bank, said he went to school with Coleman and Hill at what was then the Anniston Academy, now the Donoho School, before they transferred to Anniston High School. He kept up with Coleman through reports of his exploits on the football field, he said, and heard about the cancer after graduation.
The two reconnected years later, when Coleman worked in real estate and Swift began his career in banking. In 2006, when Southern States needed a lender position filled, Coleman was an easy choice, Swift said.
“Sometimes when you hire people that are in lending roles at banks, you have to be a little concerned about making sure they’re doing things in the best interest of the customer and the bank,” Swift said. “I never one time had any reason to question where Gibson’s heart or integrity was. He always did right by his customer and his employer.”
Coleman remained cancer-free through the rest of his life, though the repercussions of his treatment followed him always. Hill said she’d rarely seen her brother admit discomfort in his life. After the tumor was discovered, he spent months in the hospital in a dark room, cutting as much sensory input as possible to tame the headaches surging from behind his eye. She turned on the radio once, and he spoke a pained “no,” she said, even though the volume was low.
More often, though, his confidence in his own immortality was halfway between infuriating and inspiring, Hill said, laughing.
“I would get so frustrated with him because he would have a medical issue and I’m trying to make sure he has the best medical care for him,” Hill said, “and once he gets out of the hospital he puts that Superman cape on and gets right back to where he left off.”
Like his parents before him, Coleman had his body donated for scientific research to UAB, his alma mater. The conversation was not difficult between Coleman and his family, Hill said. One last act of giving for a man whose life was defined not by adversity, but by his will to serve.
“To help people further down the road and know you’re going to be a part of that,” Hill said, “it’s a gift.”