You see a lot in 97 years. Being born in a time when prohibition went into effect in the U.S., dial telephones were being introduced and the pop-up toaster was invented, it’s difficult for most people to imagine what Gene Shipp has experienced throughout his life.
Born in 1919 in Georgia, Shipp was one of eight children. That year was a notable one for racial violence, with major unrest in a number of cities.
“It was terrible what we had to go through,” Shipp said. “We have come a long, long way since then.”
And so has Shipp.
Drafted into the military in 1941, Shipp served nearly three decades in the U.S. Army and fought in three major wars — World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Being a black soldier before the U.S. Army desegregated its forces in 1948 was an uphill struggle.
“Black soldiers had to stay in tents instead of beds, but what could I do? We had to take orders,” he said. “It was really rough to tell you the truth.”
But it wasn’t rough enough to keep Gene from making the military his career. When World War II ended in 1945, Gene returned home and the next year married his first wife, Doris. Then he re-enlisted.
“I came back to the states and got married, and then the Korean War broke out,” he said. “I was sent to Tokyo and later stationed in Nuremberg, Germany, and my wife and kids followed me. The schools were great in Germany, and the kids enjoyed traveling and seeing different parts of the world.”
Shipp had two children with Doris — his son, Dr. Melvin Shipp, and his daughter, Patricia Shipp May. They moved back to the U.S. when his son attended Indiana University in 1968, but Gene was shipped off to Vietnam once American involvement in the war peaked that year.
Why did Gene continue to serve his country that long and for that many years?
“Of course I was afraid many times when in combat, but I had made the decision to make a career in the military, and I stuck with that decision,” he said. “I knew if I stayed in the military, I would have a job until I retired. It felt good to live my life that way.”
For his actions in Vietnam, Shipp was awarded the Bronze Star by President Nixon in 1969. And by the time he retired from the military in 1971, he had made the rank of master sergeant, the highest attainable rank for him.
“I’ve gotten through three major wars without a scratch on me. I always trusted and believed everything would work out for the best.”
Raised in a Christian family, Shipp grew up in the church, and that created a strong foundation for him to get through many challenges and loss throughout the years.
He lost Doris to cancer in 1983 and his second wife, Marilyn, to cancer in 2002.
“I pray every day and every night,” he said. “I have my Bible, and I read my Bible verses at the start of every day. It inspires me and keeps my hope alive for better things to come.”
One of those “better things” came with the election of President Barack Obama.
“It means a great deal to me to have witnessed the first black president,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it happened, and I was here to see it. He’s done a pretty good job as far as I’m concerned.”
Gene still goes to church every Sunday, attending the Second Baptist Church in Bloomington where he is a retired deacon. He sang in the church choir during his childhood and in the military, but what about now?
“I leave that to the youngsters,” he said with a laugh. But make no mistake, he practices his singing on his own. And he even took the time to sing a few tunes.
“I don’t want to set the world on fire,” he sang. “I just want to start a flame in your heart.” Listening to him sing the songs of yesteryear takes one back to a time where life may have been simpler and slower paced but no less full of passion and spirit.
And Gene isn’t letting 97 years slow him down. He continues to stay active at his residence at CarDon & Associates’ Bell Trace Senior Living in Bloomington. He takes part in group exercise three times a week at the community and eats as healthy as he can.
“Everything in moderation,” he said. “You can eat too much, talk too much and do too much. If you do everything in moderation, you’ll make it.”
Putting that into practice keeps Gene in shape, mentally and physically — and his Army uniform still fits perfectly. Twice a year he puts that uniform back on and wears it all day — Veterans Day and Memorial Day. He also wore it when he was honored as the 2014 City of Bloomington Black History Month Living Legend.
He’s lived at Bell Trace for five years and is frequently visited by his two children and four grandchildren.
“I love it here,” he said. “It’s a nice place, and the people are like a big happy family. We all get along and treat each other with respect.”
That’s the key advice he has to offer the “youngsters” of today.
“We all need to respect one another. The world needs more love and respect. Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Bell Trace helped Gene celebrate his 97th birthday this year with a gathering of the residents to watch a film project documenting his life, “An American Hero: The Gene T. Shipp Story.”
He’s an American hero. He’s a local legend. And he never forgets a “yes, ma’am.”
“Nothing stays the same in life,” he said. “I accept the changes, and most of the time that change is for the better. Sure, there’s still a long way to go. But things are better. Yes, ma’am.”