Eupha Gibson, a brigadier in the Salvation Army, last week ended 35 years of feeding, clothing, housing and making life bearable for the Washington area's poorest, those that the public agancies have overlooked.
As director of family welfare in the Salvation Army's Washington corps for 29 years, Gibson has witnessed many changes in the city's welfare system, but never enough to diminish her role, and the Salvation Army's, of "helping those who fall between the cracks," she said.
The friends who held a farewell reception at the army's Evangeline Residence wished her well, not for a restful retirement, but on her assignment in the Cuban community of Miami, Fla.
More than the length of her service in the District, the social workers, retired welfare officials and Salvationists who know Gibson, marvelled at the fact that she has remained compassionate in a job that quickly frustrates or makes cynics of most workers.
"An institution," and a veteran of "combat mission," the long-time co-workers called the steady, soft-voiced and kindly woman known to them as "Gibby."
"Her most outstanding quality is her compassion for people," said Brig. Marian Kingsbury, a retired Salvation Army officer, and Gibson's roommate since 1951 in a house provided by the army. "In a job of doing out welfare you can get hardened, but Gibby goes the extra mile."
"My roots are very deep in Washington. I have seen a lot of things begin here and seen them replaced by more new things," Gibson said.But the family services work has been "the best job the Salvation Army has to offer," she maintained.
Hilda Honesty, a Southeast mother of 14, said she has received so much of Gibson's and the Salvation Army's generosity that she has forgotten when it began.
"She did wonders for me," Honesty said, over the years when her husband bill got behind, the children needed shoes or the family could not afford food stamps.
William Honesty, now a Goodyear Co. service manager, has had steady work ofor the past 26 years, and half of the children, 10 to 31 years old, have left home, but Mrs. Honesty said she remembers Gibson as a "very gentle and a very understanding person. When you came to her with your problems she would help you anyway she could."
When she came to the Washington office in 1948, after seven years of service that began in Alexandria, Gibson was the Salvation Army's only welfare worker for the entire city.
"The (District's) welfare department was having a real struggle in meeting the needs of the people. There were a lot of men our of (military) service who were wandering the streets. There had been a boom, then when the year was over there were more people than jobs," Gibson recalled in an interview last week.
Two major wars and seven Presidents later, the needs of the public and the government's ability to deliver services have came full cycle. They now resemble those in the post-war period she first encountered.
"It's the same old story. Too much to do and not enough people to do it," Gibson said. But in the interim, she said she was involved in several "cycles of change" in the District's handling of its poor.
There was a lack of concern around the 1950s, when the city's welfare and other finances were arranged by Congress. Legislators "would all go home in July and wouldn't sign the (budget) bills. So for one solid month clients didn't get a check."
An increase in social service, resulting partly from greater publicity and public awareness, created overlaps in aid, such as in the creation of the United Planning Organization, which "would come into neighborhoods without finding our what other agencies were already doing. And there was duplication, but that has gotten better," she said.
"The problem now is that there is not enough staff. Our population has increased. There are more services," and the expectations have increased, she said.
"There is a different attitude (among applicants). They are far more knowledgeable. Some of them come in and they are quite belligerent. There was a time in the past when they would be gratefyl because they had nothing at all," Gibson said.
Although the Salvation Army is primarily a crisis agency, "built around providing what is not available elsewhere," its problems are the same as those in the public services, she said, except that it attempts to give it applicants "a Christian philosophy."
"Whatever you do here is only an expression of your religion," said Gibson, who as a Salvation Army officer is a minister authorized to "bury the dead, perform weddings, do religious services." The army conducts regular church services in its local corps centers as well as "open-air" worship and singing on street corners.
The daughter of a Petersburg, Va. millwright, Gibson said she was first attracted to the Army by its "joyous" way of worship, the beating of drums and clapping of hands in church services, in contrast to her family's "more dignified" Methodist practices.
"I am in social work because of the religion. I felt that I had been called by God for lifetime service and the Salvation Army was the vehicle," she said.
"I was not equipped. I was a very shy person, had lived a very sheltered life," Gibson said. "The Salvation Army has given me many opportunities, from the slums of Washington to being received at the White House," by First Ladies Johnson, Esienhower, Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she was sometimes mistaken for.
"But the most rewarding part of my job has been to see the families I have assisted through the Salvation Army get on their own feet - to see their children go through high school, and even into college."
"You have met the people of this great city and served them well," retired U.S. Army Col. William Brooks, chairman of the Salvation Army's board, said in farewell to Gibson.
"Gibby is a special kind of person. She is one of the few people who treats each individual with the same openess and honest concern," Salvation Army social worker Cherry McNair said in private tribute.
At 59, Gibson said she is looking forward to her Miami assignment, although she "can't evey say hello" in Spanish, and finds it hard to leave Washington.
Three years from now, she plans to retire in Tampa, Fla., with Kingsbury as a roommate again, and wants "to live a little."