Documentary on area senior softball players debuts Saturday in Toronto

After losing wife in 2004 plane crash, Gebard has turned to music, softball for outlets

He quit his job, withdrew from many of his friends and rarely left his house.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said quietly. “I just didn’t have the energy. For a while, I was just numb.”

Eleven years ago, Tim Gebard and his 49-year-old wife, Kathy, were living a good life. He was a financial advisor. She was an administrator for the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine at Grandview Hospital.

They had a close-knit family. Their son, Aaron, was 18 and, like his dad, he played the guitar. Kathy planned to learn the banjo so she could join their musical sessions.

On the morning of Oct. 19, 2004, Kathy flew out of Dayton for medical conference in Kirksville, Missouri. Bad weather diverted the first leg of her trip from St. Louis to Chicago, where a series of delays and a missed departure finally put her on an evening flight — the twin-engine American Connection Flight 5966 — where nine of the other 12 passengers were medical colleagues headed to the same function.

The small plane was piloted by a two-man crew who already had flown seven flights in the previous two days and was making its sixth flight that day in what already had become a 15-hour work day.

Trying to land in the fog and mist and darkness, the plane hit series of tree tops less than two miles from the Kirksville airport, began to disintegrate, caught fire and finally slammed into a large oak tree.

Kathy, 10 other passengers and the two pilots were killed. Two passengers survived.

The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the crash primarily to pilot error, possibly, in part, from fatigue, but also noted the poor weather conditions, and the fact the Jetstream was not equipped with an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System.

But all that was little consolation to Tim, who was inconsolable in the first couple of years after the loss of his wife.

‘A blank slate’

“When Kathy died, I was really consumed,” he admitted. “I tried to get back to work, but I was a financial adviser and it was — especially in that field where you are planning for the death of a spouse — I just couldn’t continue doing that. So I stopped working.”

Still there was no escape.

“Working as an educator, Kathy had touched a lot of people,” he said. “After graduation, a lot of her students spread out over the country and, in some cases, the world. And in the year after the crash, I kept getting cards and letters and phone calls from people who just heard and wanted to say they were sorry.

“I appreciated it, but I also could never get away from it. I was going through it almost daily, and it was draining. Through it all, I tried to shield Aaron as best I could. For a while it was just the two of us and we got along as best we could.

“But my personal situation was a blank slate.

“When you do things the right way in life, you have a plan for the future. But then all of a sudden mine was gone. All kinds of things go through your mind. You question yourself: ‘Why wasn’t it me who was gone? Women are supposed to outlive the men.’ That hadn’t happened here and I didn’t have the capacity to think of something else.

“I had a blank slate and nothing to write on it.

“I was lost.”

Tim told this story the other morning as he sat at the dining room table in his Clayton home. In front of him, the living room resembled a bandstand. A pair of guitars were propped near music stands and amplifiers.

He has his own band now — Tim Gebard and The Hit Men — and sometimes he’ll rehearse with one of them or another musician, like Steve Raynes, who had stopped by to practice the day before. Sometimes he’ll just play with Aaron, who is in his dad’s band and two others, as well.

In a closet off his bedroom, Tim has stored the backpacking equipment he used on various treks, whether they were local or along the Appalachian Trail or maybe up on Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Propped against the dining room table were four new Louisville Slugger Hyper Z bats that he will use on the six senior softball teams he now plays on — two of which he manages — around the Miami Valley.

On the table in front of him lay a DVD of the heartfelt documentary he has produced — along with the help of people like local photographer Jennifer Taylor, fellow musician Todd the Fox and Dean Vincent of Studio D in New Carlisle — about the guys who play in the Dayton-based senior softball Cuny-Zink American League.

Next to the DVD was a CD of the songs — four of which have won awards at the annual SingDoor International Songwriting Competition — he wrote and recorded for the project.

The documentary — which makes its international debut Saturday at the Indy Sportz Film Fest Experience in Toronto — is entitled, “The Fall League.”

That refers not only to the shortened, August-to-October second season the league has each year, but to the fact that the senior players, as he noted — are in ‘the autumn” of their days.

Yet for the 64-year-old Gebard, this is the springtime of his life.

Just like the daffodils, crocuses, tulips and those magenta-flowered redbud trees that come to life this time of year, Tim Gebard’s life is back in bloom.

The slate is no longer blank.

“It took a couple of years, but I finally was able to see that most people have some kind of tragedy — some kind of difficulty — to deal with,” he said. “It’s totally acceptable that it’s going to stop you for a while, but what defines you is how you respond to it.

“It finally came to me: I wasn’t going to let Kathy’s death be the legacy for me. I don’t want that to sound wrong, but I wasn’t going to let that be THE most important thing that ever happened in my life. She wouldn’t have wanted that. She’d want me to go on living, not quit.”

A film about optimism

In the few recent stories that have come out about “The Fall League,” Tim has not mentioned the personal tragedy he and Aaron endured. And, in fact, when you watch the film, you will be hard pressed to see his presence.

There are only a few images of him, and he has no speaking lines. That was by design. He lobbied Taylor, the director, and those editing the footage to keep him out.

When asked, the other morning, to talk about what he has gone through, he first hesitated. Finally he relented — with a qualifier:

“I really have struggled not to make this film about me. I don’t want anyone to think I’m doing this for me.

“I’ll be happy to talk about Kathy, but if we’re going to do that, we need to talk about what point we started turning things around, too.”

“The Fall League,” he stresses, is a story about optimism. And now, his story has become that, too.

“My experience has been, ‘One of the worst things that can ever happen to you has happened,’” he said. “In some ways — and this might sound strange — once that happens, you can choose to stop everything or you can choose to keep going. … I made some choices along the way to keep going and when that happens, it kind of frees you up. You become more open.”

When he first started going out with veteran backpackers, he said part of the experience for him was, ‘OK, let’s find out where we’re going from here.’”

He even turned it into a song, ‘Let’s Find Out,” which is on the movie soundtrack.

In everyday life he eventually found himself going to places he never thought he would again.

“It was just a combination of the backpacking trips, the camaraderie of the band and especially my son that kept me going,” he said.

In 2008, Raynes convinced him to join a band called, Pocket Change. And although he was writing songs then, Tim kept them to himself and never told his bandmates.

“I didn’t know if they were any good, but finally I figured if I’m going to keep this up I need to have somebody else hear my songs and see what they think,” he said.

People liked them and he finally recorded his first CD just before he turned 60. And since he’s put together his band, he’s played at some places around the area, such as the Oregon Express and the Clifton Opera House.

Finally, two years ago, he began dating Lindy Campbell, a financial planner herself.

“I had gotten to the point where I just thought I’d never have a relationship again and then this happened,” he said with a faint smile. “I’m really lucky.”

That good fortune continued when, though the music business, he met Taylor and Todd the Fox. They had been toying with the idea of doing a documentary, but hadn’t found a subject.

Tim suggested senior softball — specifically the Cuny-Zink Senior Softball American League which is administered by the City of Dayton Recreation and Youth Services — in which he had just begun playing.

“When you’ve got 120 people and they’re all 63 (league minimum) or older,” he said, “everybody has a story and it’s ongoing.”

Discovering softball again

Gebard grew up in Springfield and said he remembers watching some of the nation’s top teams play in the much-celebrated, and now defunct, Stroh’s Classic held there each year.

“Games would draw 15,000, maybe 20,000 people, and it was on (ABC’s) Wide World of Sports.”

After graduating from Springfield South and Wilmington College, Tim began playing softball, which he continued to do until he reached 40.

“We had a company team and we won the (Springfield) city championship in our division and I figured that was a good time to retire,” he said. “At that point all the other guys were in their 20s, and I was not as fast as I used to be. And at home, Aaron was three or four then, and we had other commitments and I figured it was time.”

He had not really thought about the sport again until a few years ago when he ventured to the batting cages at Young’s Dairy outside Yellow Springs and met two guys who were playing senior softball. They asked his age and pointed him toward one of the Dayton-area leagues.

In 2013 it was estimated there were 67,000 people 65 and older playing slow-pitch softball in the United States. In the Greater Dayton area there are eight 50-and-older recreation leagues, each with four to eight teams. And the Dayton Legends field six select travelling teams that begin at age 50 and include a 70-and-older team.

More than just a game and exercise, Tim found camaraderie and commitment and a new sense of self in senior softball.

“As a senior citizen you get to a time in your lives where you’ve been told by a lot of people it’s time to stop,” he said. “You’re told you’re past your work prime. You don’t have the skills to keep up with new technology. That you can’t do things.

“And yet here were all these people doing things and doing them with such passion. It was such a positive experience. There was a real sense of joy, a real sense of optimism”.

One of the experts who appears in the movie — Dr. Leon Speroff, an octogenarian slow-pitch player and author from Oregon — called senior softball “a victory over aging,” and that’s what Gebard tried to capture in “The Fall League.”

“We could have gone to the dark side, but we chose not to,” he said. “We could have made it, ‘This guy had a stroke last year, and this guy had two hip replacements and that one has Type 2 diabetes and that one has multiple sclerosis,’ and it all would have been true. But that’s not the story here.

“Everybody has some issue – health , family, the death of a spouse – but to know other guys are going through same thing right now creates a bond that’s pretty strong for a lot of folks. The camaraderie has a real therapeutic value.”

The closest Gebard gets to mentioning specific issues is with a few good-natured references in the second verse of movie’s infectious theme song — “That’s the Way (We Play The Game)” — that he wrote:

Leon got a problem with a rotator cuff.

Jimmy got a new knee but he can run good enough.

Joe has got some hammies that are giving him some trouble…

He can hit a homerun and stretch it into a double.

The sky is getting’ bluer and the sun is ridin’ high.

Tuffy got a bad hop and he caught a black eye.

That’s the way.

That’s the way.

“Leon said it best, it’s a triumph over aging,” Tim said. “A lot of guys go into the off-season knowing they’ve got a major surgery coming up or cancer treatments or a questionable heart. They don’t know what the off-season will bring, but they all talk about next year and doing this and that.”

“Some are taking lessons in the winter and working on their game. Others are snowbirds and move to Florida, Arizona or California to play winter ball.”

The movie touches on various themes, everything from the social and psychological aspects of the game to the involvement of family, aging and the number of military veterans who find the brotherhood of service without the bloodshed and battle fatigue of war.

The movie was first shown last November to local senior softball players, and the segments on veterans got three standing ovations. The show then sold out its first public showing at The Neon movie theater in March.

While “The Fall League” opens the Toronto festival Saturday morning, Tim said he and the others who go will stay for the entire day’s worth of films.

But he’ll definitely return home Sunday, because Monday is Opening Day for the Dayton City Rec League teams, and he’ll both manage and play in a 5 p.m. game and then play for another team right after that.

And even before that — on Monday morning already — he’ll play with another team in Kettering. Tuesday he plays in a different league, and Wednesday he’s with yet another team. On the weekend, he play with a traveling team.

On the second weekend in May, he and The Hit Men perform at the annual music extravaganza — Sideshow 10 — at the Old Yellow Cab Building on East 4th Street in Dayton. In October, “The Fall League” will be part of the Louisville International Film Festival.

As for his backpack, he said it almost never leaves the closet:

“I haven’t had the time really. I’ve gotten kind of busy.”

But he did get something out of those days. That song, “Let’s Find Out,”… well, he did.

He found out his slate is no longer blank.

Tim Gebard again has focus and will and love.

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