On a cool, windy day last Thursday morning at the Oxford Cemetery, as an eagle flew over the graveside burial service, a group of bundled up friends and family members gathered to say farewell to a man known for his understated leadership as a businessman, civic leader and philanthropist.
Al Gipe died at age 95 on April 15 at his home in Royal Oak.
He was a man of few words. He established three successful engineering firms during his career, the last in Easton in 1979. He chaired the Academy Art Museum and Talbot Hospice and served as president of Easton Rotary. He was a past vice president of the Waterfowl Festival and a board member of Waterfowl Chesapeake.
He was a superb listener. He had an innate sense that it was often better to listen, than talk. That is a rare attribute.
In a Star Democrat interview 10 years ago, he said that Talbot Hospice was his favorite non-profit. As chair, he oversaw the fundraising for construction and headed the building committee for the first phase of Hospice House and oversaw construction of the second phase of Hospice as well.
When he was Hospice chair, Liz Freedlander (my wife) served as executive director. Like so many others, she too was impressed by this soft-spoken man. She considered him a friend and mentor.
“Al was completely committed to the community volunteer leadership roles he assumed over the years. This was especially true of Hospice. While president of the board, he visited the patients in Hospice House once a week. He was calm, wise and persistent that a gold standard of care was delivered to the community. Al was my mentor while I worked at Hospice and remained my dear friend for 34 years,” Freedlander said.
Liz and I attended the graveside ceremony, moved by its simplicity, its patriotism as represented by a U.S. Navy honor guard and the words spoken by his wife, Dagmar, and his daughter, Pat Lesnoff. The former graciously thanked friends for attending, while the latter slowly read a poem paying tribute to her dad’s straight-forward instructions about hunting, fishing and boating.
Gipe touched the lives of many people in his modest, steadfast way. One of them was Melanie Dixon, a longtime employee and vice president of Gipe Associates who offered these recollections:
“Al started this company (his third) in October 1977. That in itself I find amazing. Who in their right mind at the age of 52 is thinking of starting a NEW company instead of thinking about retirement or slowing down! They don’t make them like they used to! I was hired in August 1979. Over the years, Al lived his personal and business life as he had once said to me: work hard. Play hard. But maintain a good balance. I think he nailed it.
“In prior years and businesses he has had, then sold outright, he wanted to find a “new” way of selling this company to all of its employees under a “ESOP-Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).” He spent a good year researching all the pros and cons, attending seminars, meetings with plan administrators, lawyers, accountants, banks, etc. etc. Finally in 1991, we successfully started this process, and we purchased the first batch of shares. By 2002, we purchased the final shares and became 100% employee-owned.
“Essentially this is a plan where the company contributes corporate profits into the “ESOP Plan” each year, it gets allocated to all employees in cash and shares, and this builds over the years. When an employee terminates, then their account is paid out to them over a 5-year period. This instills a cohesive work force that all work towards a common goal and assures the best outcomes, not only for our clients, but for our workers and families and supports a “team” effort in all that we do.
“Years ago, Al had a sailboat he named “Charisma”. I think that word truly represented Al and all that he stood for. He was the kindest, most positive and patient employer and person. It was amazing how he had the best “insight” and faith in each person that they could learn and handle a particular duty or task, even when that person wasn’t so sure of themselves or capability.
“He was a great listener…and many times told me that 99% of the solution was merely listening – letting the person vent about whatever- getting it off their chest, then the solution would come in its own good time and work itself out. Piece of cake…don’t sweat the small stuff. To me it was like watching a magician and racking my brain to figure out how he could make things look so damn easy.
“He will be so sorely missed and irreplaceable. I found myself in the last week having moments of panic as it sinks in that I can no longer bounce an idea off him…what am I going to do!? Then I calm down and keep telling myself – don’t sweat the small stuff, just keep on…play hard, work hard and maintain a good balance.”
In his low-key, down-to-earth way, Gipe inspired many who had the good fortune to work and serve with him in his business and non-profit careers. He sought little or no recognition; it just didn’t seem to matter to him. He remained focused on results and forward movement.
Ron Flohr, a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley in Easton who knew Al Gipe as he was dipping his toes as a young professional into community activities, also has many fond memories of this first-class gentleman.
“It is not too often that you meet someone as successful as Al at the early age of 28, and they treat you like a peer. In 2007, I had the opportunity to meet Al when I joined the Easton Rotary group. I went to my first meeting and sat down at a table with Al and a few others. I had not been in the seat for more than 30 seconds when I was told, “Hey, that’s my seat” — a real Cheers moment. Al told me not to worry about it, welcomed me and introduced me to the rest of the table.
“Around the same time, I joined the board of the Waterfowl Festival, and once again there was Al welcoming me and introducing me to the rest of the board. It seemed like Al and his wife Dagmar were at every fundraiser or charitable event that I went to and always the first one to say hi.
“Al really became an inspiration to me. He volunteered or donated to everything he could, which in turn made me feel like I could do the same. I genuinely believe that Talbot County is the place it is today because of people like Al. They volunteered their time; they gave their support and asked their friends to get involved.
“I didn’t know Al for his success in business, I knew him as someone who loved this community and was passionate about doing what he could to improve it.”
Al Gipe has left our earthly bonds. Like many before him who contributed so mightily to the goodness of Talbot County and the Mid-Shore, he will not be forgotten. Folks like Liz Freedlander, Melanie Dixon and Ron Flohr will vividly recall a modest and committed person who achieved great success as a businessman and community leader.
While purely coincidental, the flyover by an eagle at the serene Oxford Cemetery seemed just right.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.