MANATEE -- A teenaged William "Bud" Gillett of Parrish first laid eyes on Velma Masengale at Whidden's grocery store on US 301 in Parrish in 1958 and told friends, "That girl. Right there, She's the one for me."
The love between Mr. Gillett, who would go on to become one of Manatee County's most beloved pastors over the next 50 years, and that girl in the grocery store he married in 1960, was still apparent in the final seconds of Mr. Gillett's life on Sunday at the couple's vacation home in Highlands, N.C.
"He was feeling discomfort," Velma Gillett said Thursday of her retired 73-year-old husband, tenderly known as Brother Bud to generations in Manatee County who knew him from his 17-year stint as pastor of First Baptist Church of Palmetto. He was blowing leaves from the driveway of his mountain home. "I saw him fall. Our Australian Shepherd was standing over him."
It was a heart attack.
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Although Mr. Gillett could not speak in his final seconds, he was communicating, his wife said.
"It was a sweet experience," Velma Gillett said. "I was right with him. I believe with all my heart that the love we shared for 54 years was so loudly spoken at that moment that he didn't have to say anything. I was holding him and praying with him. I saw him take his last breath."
Velma Gillett drove from North Carolina to Parrish on Thursday with family members. Mr. Gillett is already home. His body is at Mansion Memorial Park and Funeral Home in Ellenton, his family said.
A public celebration of Mr. Gillett's life is set for 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16 at First Baptist Church of Palmetto, 1020 4th St. W., Palmetto. The family will hold a private cremation service later.
"I have bouts of much sadness, but sadness for my loss only," Velma Gillett said by phone from the road Thursday. "Bud and I shared the knowledge of heaven. He preached about it for 54 years. I know he would be saying, 'This is what I lived for. This is what I preached about. Press toward the mark of the high calling of God because this is real.' I would not want Bud back here."
Admirers are saddened
Mr. Gillett knew so many people in Manatee County that his three children realized early on to avoid going to DeSoto Square Mall with him if they were in a hurry.
"If you went with him to the Mall you would be there for two hours because he wanted to stop and talk to everyone who knew him and that was everyone in the Mall," said Mr. Gillett's son, Darren, 49.
You also never played 'What's His Name?" with Mr. Gillett because Mr. Gillett had a photographic memory for names, dates and events, said David Tyler, 72, a Manatee County real estate broker who knew Mr. Gillett for about 65 years.
"If Brother Bud knew you, he knew your birthday and your children's birthdays," Tyler said. "He was a walking telephone book."
Tyler played on the Palmetto High School football team along with Mr. Gillett, who graduated in the famous PHS Class of 1959, the first class in the new PHS building.
"Gene Witt taught both of us and was our football coach," Tyler said. "I was one grade behind him. Bud was bald for many years but as a child he had long, golden locks, He was the fastest person on our football team. Bud played center. If you saw him you would say, 'That kid's not big enough to play anywhere on a football team.' But he could do anything he set his mind to. Everything he did was superb. He was class valedictorian. He was great to be around. He was great to listen to and was the guy that captured Velma's heart."
Tyler's voice choked with emotion as he said, "I have never known anyone finer than that man."
"Bud was a wonderful friend, someone you could always count on," said Sandy Coyatt Miller, part of the Palmetto High Class of 1959 of which Mr. Gillett was class president.
"We all loved him," said Palmetto High friend Freda Logan. "When he expressed his love for you, it was real, not like a politician's."
Besides leading First Baptist Church of Palmetto, Gillett served at First Baptist Church of Gillette from 2004 to 2008 and pastored churches in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Mr. Gillett was selected as Manatee County's Distinguished Citizen in 2007. The award recognizes individuals who have made "significant and meritorious contributions to Manatee County" typically through volunteer and community service.
"Brother Bud Gillett was one of a kind for sure," said Don Varnadore, 77, a CPA and the managing partner of CPA Associates in Bradenton when he retired 10 years ago. "One of the great remembrances I have was going to First Baptist Church of Atlanta, which is Dr. Charles Stanley's church, with Ron Witt and Brother Bud."
Varnadore recalls that Brother Bud was interested in hearing about the way Stanley's church handled missions programs. The information helped First Baptist Church of Palmetto expand its missions efforts significantly, Varnadore said.
"Brother Bud was very loving and helpful," Varnadore said. "He was an effervescent person, a great witness to people."
Bonny Whidden was also in Mr. Gillett's graduating class.
"At Palmetto High, he always read the devotionals over the intercom," Whidden said. "That was his job. He was a good example for students and teachers of someone who led the Christian life. He set his goals early and met and excelled in all of them."
Celebration of life planned
Mr. Gillett's family and friends said Thursday that 2,000 to 5,000 are expected for the Nov. 16 celebration service and the only place big enough to hold it is the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
But funeral home director Rick Groover advised the family that the Center wouldn't be right.
"You could never have a home-going for Brother Bud in any location but a church," Groover said.
The celebration will be simulcast into the nearby Christian Life Center, said Mr. Gillett's son, Darren, 49.
Eileen Varnadore, who played the piano during Mr. Gillett's tenure at First Baptist Church of Palmetto, will play a duet with organist David Jefferies at the celebration.
"He is probably the most popular minister in Manatee County," Eileen Varnadore said Thursday.
Brother Bud's favorite song -- "It Is Well With My Soul," -- will be performed, Varnadore said.
"Bart Culpepper is coming from Troy, Alabama and he was the former music minister and he, his wife, Anela and their son, Christopher, are going to sing," Varnadore said. " It's gonna be something. Maybe they should rent the Civic Center. But this is where Brother Bud would want it."
Mr. Gillett was born in Parrish on Oct. 28, 1941. His father was William "Alden" Gillett Sr., pronounced "Gill it." His mother was Lounette Whidden Gillett. Besides his wife, Velma, of Parrish, Mr. Gillett is survived by three sisters: Joann Rogers of Parrish and Marilyn Oxford and Barbara Davis of Bradenton and three children.
His son Darren, 47, of Alpharetta, Ga. is married to Michelle Wise and they have a son, Michael, 21.
His daughter, Delena Jeffers, is married to Scott Jeffers and they have daughter, Hannah Martin, 21, and son, Benjamin Martin, 17, of Bradenton.
His son, Derek, 44, of Alamo, Ga. has two children: Sidney, 16 and Gabriel, 15.
After graduating from Palmetto High in 1959. Mr. Gillett attended Carson-Newman College in 1964 and Southeastern Seminary in the early 1970s. He was pastor of his first church, French Broad Baptist Church in Dandridge, Tenn., while still in college,
The celebration on Nov. 16 will be Mr. Gillett's only public service, his family said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.