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A longtime Iowa judge, Gilbert Bovard was an athlete well into his 70s. He died of COVID-19.


When Ralph Bovard set off for college, his father, Gilbert, kept him up to date with local goings-on through “The Blatt,” the patriarch’s handwritten newsletter.

Every Sunday night, Gilbert would put pen to yellow legal pad and recount the week’s events, describing the latest happenings at the lake, meditating on politics or jotting down whatever “wild stuff” crossed his mind. As each of his other three children left home, his mailing list expanded.

“He didn’t call on the phone, didn’t use the phone very much,” Ralph said. So, “we all looked forward to getting that letter every week, early in the week.”

Although Gilbert had difficulty saying, “I love you,” his letters always ended with “Love, Dad” — or with “Hang by yer thumbs,” his euphemism for the same valediction.

Gilbert wrote and mailed the weekly newsletter for nearly 40 years, scribbling some 3,000 pages in his “very beautiful cursive handwriting,” Ralph said.

A well-respected lawyer and longtime Iowa District Court judge, the letters ended when Gilbert died from COVID-19 in November. He was 93.

Born in 1927 in Pasadena, California, Gilbert was an only child. His dad, a doctor, came down with tuberculous a few years after Gilbert’s birth, so the toddler was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Mason City, where he’d reside most of his life.

A graduate of the University of Iowa Law School, Gilbert dabbled in many areas of law, his children said. Since his death, they’ve found correspondence from individuals who met their father while in the Iowa judicial system. Most thank him for caring about them and having faith they’d turn their lives around when no one else did, the kids said. 

Appointed to the bench in 1983 by former Gov. Terry Branstad, Gilbert retired in 2005. Although he likely would’ve continued to serve had there not been a mandatory retirement at age 75, his children said.

“I think he really enjoyed being a judge because he enjoyed being a referee more than an arbitrator for one side versus the other,” his son Scott said. “He always said as a lawyer, you’re an advocate rather than someone who is seeking what’s truth and what’s common ground.”

Outside of the courtroom, Gilbert had a plethora of hobbies, many picked up in his middle age.

He earned a black belt in judo at age 40, played rugby on the River City State Championship team until he was 55 and suited up for ice hockey in the men’s over-30 league until he was 78.

When he was no longer able to compete in athletics, he mastered the cribbage board, a game his children said he rarely lost.

“You can never have too many hobbies,” Scott said. “I think that’s one thing dad passed on to us is there’s no reason to be stagnant, but always try to take on a challenge and do something different whether you’re good at it or not.”

These avocations, whether physical or intellectual, provided both an outlet from the rigors of his profession and a way to connect with his children, Ralph said. Even with his demanding schedule, Gilbert attended nearly all their events growing up, including football games, basketball games and swim meets.

“He was the best hands-on dad,” his daughter Sally said. “He was involved in everything all of us did and gave us all a wonderful opportunity to explore anything we wanted to.”

Expressing his love became easier as time wore on, but even when he was still tight-lipped his children knew how much he cared for them.

And, now, if they ever need a reminder, they can look to those beloved letters — and that unique signoff.

"Hang by yer thumbs."

This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at ccrowder@dmreg.com.

Iowans lost to COVID-19

The following deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 600 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.

Geoff Amble, 61, Cedar Falls. Often found tinkering in his garage, whether working on his Jeep or building furniture for his wife.

Joan Anderson, 89, Quad Cities. Knit hats for newborn babies at the Bettendorf hospital. 

Lou Christiansen, 84, Manchester. Worked on the Apollo program at Collins Radio.

Duane Fisher, 95, Pacific Junction. Stood honor guard for President Franklin Roosevelt at Pearl Harbor.

Chad Greening, 48, Ankeny. An "arm-chair manager" with immense statistical knowledge and enthusiasm for the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Terry Munyon, 65, Kellerton. Asked his wife three times to marry him while they were growing up and each time she said no. They spent 43 years together after she asked him to marry her and he said yes.

Marilyn Reams, 75, Des Moines. Never missed a softball game, swim meet, baseball game or soccer game for her grandchildren.

Donald "Spook" Schnackenberg, 80, Council Bluffs. A Navy veteran who retired as a boilermaker.

Elizabeth Westcott, 84, Cedar Rapids. Graduated from the John Roberts Powers Modeling School in Minneapolis.