Bette Rhea shared a story about Gary Dedeaux that speaks volumes about his life and generous character.
Rhea said she had just arrived for a women’s Bible study at First Baptist Church in Columbus when she was approached by a stranger, who said he needed gas money to get back home to his family on the coast.
“Normally, I do keep a little money, but that morning, I didn’t have my purse with me,” she recalled. “As I was telling the man I was sorry but that I didn’t have any money, Gary happened to be walking by on his way to a men’s Bible study. I explained the situation.”
Rhea said Gary didn’t ask any questions or say anything.
“He just pulled out his wallet, opened it up and said to me, ‘Take what you need.’ He must have had $300 in his wallet. I took $20, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if I had taken it all he wouldn’t have said a word,” she said. “That’s just the kind of man Gary Dedeaux was.”
Dedeaux, 65, died in a fatal plane crash along with his 13-year-old grandson, Luke Reed, Wednesday in Oktibbeha County. The shock of the loss continues to reverberate in Dedeaux’s hometown of West Point and in Columbus, with a grief that remains almost palpable. He will be remembered as a successful businessman, building Gary’s Pawn and Gun, with locations in both West Point and Columbus, as one of the state’s largest gun retailers, and as an avid amateur pilot and a strong supporter of the Palmer Home for Children, a devoted Christian, loyal friend as well as a loving spouse, father and grandfather.
But it is the stories of Dedeaux’s generosity that will endure.
“He supported just about everything that he felt helped make the community better,” said former West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson, who has known Dedeaux for more than 50 years. “He was just very generous, always helping.”
Love of flying
Dedeaux loved to fly vintage airplanes high in the skies above Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties. He was an avid supporter of Columbus Air Force Base in a variety of ways over the years.
“The Air Force Base honored him with a ceremony and a plaque a while back,” said Mike Pearson, one of the managers at Gary’s Pawn and Gun. “He was extremely proud of that.”
Dedeaux owned three vintage airplanes, including an AT-6 Trainer like the one first used when CAFB opened in 1941. He enjoyed showing off the planes almost as much as flying them, West Point City Administrator Randy Jones said.
“My grandson (Tyler Flannagan) was really into old airplanes when he was growing up,” Jones said. “I mentioned this to Gary, so one year when Tyler came to visit around Christmas, I told him about Gary’s AT-6 and said we could go see it. Tyler was so excited. When we got to the airport, Gary had the plane out on the tarmac and showed Tyler the plane. Then Tyler found out Gary was going to take him for a flight. He was absolutely thrilled. I think Gary enjoyed it as much as Tyler did.”
Rodney Lincoln, manager of Starkville Municipal George M. Bryan Airport, met Dedeaux years ago when Dedeaux brought one of his vintage planes to participate in an event at the airport featuring different planes from different eras.
“As it turned out, he needed a jump and I went to jump him off,” Lincoln said. “We’ve been friends ever since. You won’t find a finer Christian guy and he was a very good pilot, very knowledgeable. It’s awful what happened, but I know he’s wearing a pair of wings now that will never hurt him.”
As a young man, Dedeaux got his start as a businessman in his hometown.
“His father was a chiropractor in town,” Robinson said. “He died pretty young, in his 50s, but he helped get Gary started in his business before he died.”
Dedeaux opened Gary’s Pawn and Gun in West Point in 1978, opening up a second store in Columbus a couple of years later, said Pearson, who worked at the store from 1992- 2003 and returned to the store in 2016.
“He really built the business,” Pearson said. “When I started, you needed three people to run everything. Now, you need 14 people to do everything that needs to be done. I think the reason he was so successful is that he treated every customer like they were a friend and the customer felt it.”
The outpouring of grief has been overwhelming, even at the stores.
“We made it a point to stay open because we all knew that’s the way Gary would want it,” Pearson said. “Since this happened, we’ve had a lot of customers come by to express their condolences. Just a little while ago when I came in, I saw a customer, a man in his 70s, and he was crying like a baby. He’d just found out. He was heartbroken.”
Dedeaux was not only active in his support for community organizations and his church; he also served his hometown as selectman from 2013-2017.
“Gary always wanted to do whatever he could to support his community,” Robinson said. “People knew that. That’s why he was elected. He was a quiet guy and he got along well with the other selectman, but he could make his point and stand his ground when he felt it was called for.”
Longtime West Point City Administrator Jones said Dedeaux applied his business principles to his public service on the town’s Board of Selectmen.
“He was a businessman, so he approached being a Selectman with a business-like approach,” he said. “He applied sound business principles and practices to his work as a Selectman because he wanted to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money. The one thing he really supported was recreation, just about anything that helped kids.”
Dedeaux was a successful businessman with big passions, but a small ego.
“The thing that always struck me about Gary was his humility,” said Rhea, who noted Dedeaux’s long association with Emmaus Ministries, a national Christian organization that holds spiritual retreats for people who are facing crises. “Most leaders command authority, but it wasn’t that way with Gary. He was very humble.”
Dedeaux connected to people through his quiet nature and humble demeanor.
“When he was lay director, the person who is responsible for one of the retreats, which we call Walks, Gary was so humble, so down-to-earth with everyone,” Rhea said. “He came to Christ as an adult and I think that helped him connect with many of the people on the walk. They could relate to him and he was so quiet and gentle. He was one of them.”
Jones said West Point is still trying to come to grips with Dedeaux’s sudden passing.
“I think everybody is still in that deer-in-the-headlights state right now,” he said. “It’s been a tough thing. West Point is a small town, so most everybody knew Gary and what kind of man he was. That makes it all the harder.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]