SPRINGFIELD — Bridge the gap between law enforcement and the communities that police serve and protect.
That’s what friends, colleagues and family heard Thursday, as they gathered to remember John Gibbons, the first Black person to serve as a U.S. marshal in Massachusetts.
“The best way to respect someone is to carry on their work,” said Ronald L. Davis, director of the U.S. Marshals Service.
Gibbons, who lived in Agawam, died May 2 after a 16-month battle with cancer. He was 66.
“He was a trailblazer,” Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said.
His service drew legions of U.S. marshals, police and sheriff’s officers from around the state, and also the Delaware State Police, where his son, Jonathan C. Gibbons, serves as senior corporal. Squad cars filled Court Square outside Symphony Hall, as the words of the 23rd psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd,” resounded in the great concert hall.
Inside, there were mementos of Gibbons’ life: an American International College football helmet and photographs, including family snapshots and news photos of him making arrests. Many remembered how Gibbons often earned the trust of people he arrested.
Davis first met Gibbons when the former was an Obama administration Justice Department official charged with building relationships between law enforcement and groups that often feel at odds with police. Marshal Gibbons, Davis said, advocated for the U.S. Marshals Service to be a part of that effort, with its network of police partnerships and core values of justice, integrity and service.
Davis said when he was asked to join Joe Biden’s administration, he chose the Marshals Service because of Gibbons’ example.
Gibbons, a former state police trooper and investigator, was appointed by President Barack Obama as a U.S. marshal in 2010, and he remained so for 11 years, through three presidents.
A New Jersey native who played football and earned degrees at American International College, Gibbons started his career as a counselor for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, working for Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr. at the old York Street Jail, said current Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi.
Gibbons was a mentor to generations in law enforcement, Cocchi said.
“If everyone could walk a mile in John Gibbons’ shoes, spend a day looking at the world through his eyes,” Cocchi said, “our world would be a better place. Our profession of law enforcement would be a better place.”
Retired state police Capt. Peter Higgins said he met Gibbons in 1981, when Higgins was assigned to be newly minted Trooper Gibbons’ training officer in the Northampton barracks.
“The teacher quickly became the student,” Higgins said. “He was a good cop and an even better man.”
And an example for his son, who told the audience he never had to go looking in comic books to find the hero he had in his father.
“An in-the-pants holster, a beeper, a set of handcuffs,” he said. “You couldn’t convince me there is anything better.”
Cooler still, he recalled his state police detective father picking him up from school.
“In an undercover car,” the younger Gibbons recalled.
Among the mourners, Dora Robinson, the former president and CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, described Gibbons as a “quiet giant” who earned respect — there’s that word again — through his own empathy.
Her husband, Baystate Health Vice President Frank Robinson, recalled Gibbons’ own source of guidance.
“He was a man of tremendous faith,” Robinson said, “tremendous faith in God.”
Mourners were told that Gibbons worshipped at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield, in part because its members sing not just from the mouth but from the heart.
As such, service leaders prompted the otherwise reserved group of uniformed police officers in attendance to sing along with the hymn “Blessed Assurance,” and exhorted them to also clap their hands and tap their feet, to belt out the upbeat “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand.”