gifford harold1 19-07-08

Former Lakers plane pilot Harold Gifford, 95 at the time, shoots a free throw at Laker Court in Carroll in July 2019. On a winter evening 59 years before, Gifford co-piloted a plane carrying 10 members of the Minneapolis Lakers through a blinding blizzard to a landing in a Carroll cornfield, now the site of the basketball court. Gifford returned to Carroll as part of the city's sesquicentennial celebration. He now is 97 years old.

The headline to this column is just the sort of thing Harold Gifford would say.

He’s 97 going on 35. He’s the most ageless person I’ve encountered in a 30-year career.

Gifford is the World War II veteran who piloted the Minneapolis Lakers’ plane through a blinding blizzard in the January Iowa skies to safety in a Carroll cornfield in 1960. Kuemper Catholic School System President John Steffes, a history-minded local leader, and I keep in regular contact with Gifford. We have for the better part of two decades.

I talked to Gifford on the phone most recently from his home in the Minneapolis suburbs to get the pilot’s take on one of his more-famous passengers. Hall of Fame basketball player Elgin Baylor walked off that plane with his professional basketball teammates to the welcome, bracing January air, the first hours of the rest of the 61 years of his life. Baylor died March 22 age 86.

“86, that’s pretty young to go,” Gifford said.

The reasons I talk to Gifford go beyond journalism. Yes, he is a living source to the single most interesting breaking news story in the history of Carroll. But when you are interacting with Gifford you sort of feel as if you’re in a Billy Wilder movie like, say, “Stalag 17.” Gifford spins wit and wisdom into a seen-it-all humor and ethos we rarely encounter, as it is so distinct to the rapidly disappearing World War II generation. He’s funny, cutting and thought-provoking, but never, not once, unkind.

What’s it like being 97, Harold?

“Well, my warranty is out,” he joked.

We published a Page 1 account last week of Gifford’s memories of Baylor and their lives’ intersection on that fateful, and fortunate, night.

Here are the basics: At 1:40 a.m. Monday, Jan. 18, 1960, the plane, carrying the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team and piloted by military veterans Vernon Ullman and Gifford, made an emergency landing through a blinding snow storm in a cornfield (the Emma Steffes farm) that now is the Collison Addition in northeast Carroll.

Ten members of the Minneapolis ball club walked off the plane without injury that early morning 61 years ago. Just one year later, the Lakers, with rookie sensation Jerry West from West Virginia University added to the lineup that included Baylor, had relocated to Los Angeles, where they would become one of the most-storied franchises in all of sports.

An Army Air Force pilot in the Pacific Theater of World War II, Gifford brings compelling insights to life in large part because he’s come so close to death.

“We came within seconds of flying into those trees,” he said of a portion of the Carroll landing effort on Highway 71 north.

His military experience and some crop-dusting days in the American West gave him life-saving instincts that night.

Gifford is at the age now where he has outlived most of his contemporaries. His granddaughter Janelle is about to become a grandmother herself, which will make Gifford a great-great grandfather.

“At 97 I look around myself all the time and say, ‘Where the hell did they all go?’ ” Gifford told me. “I have a pretty good idea of why they went, but I’m not sure where they are.”

Gifford, a voracious reader who keeps in touch with a lot of people, says his decision to drop alcohol and tobacco from his life in the 1970s contributed to his longevity.

“Genetics will get you to about 80, but from that point on, you’re on your own,” Gifford said.

His three suggested points, beyond the obvious good health choices, for a long life:

— Stay connected

— Have many interests

— Remain active

“Those three things help me,” Gifford said. “I try to stay in a good mood.”

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