The letters on the license plate on Koonny Frog’s Chevrolet (always a Chevrolet – never a Ford) sounded out to read “Breaking My Heart,” a nod to his love for country music.
Now the lovable Vernon “Koonny Frog” Gilbert indeed has broken everyone’s heart, with his passing Sunday at the age of 74.
In his later years he would tell you about his various health problems regularly, but then usually end that list with, “But I ain’t never had no headache. You know why?”
“I ain’t never been married.”
Koonny Frog was known as well for his wit as for his deep kindness and optimism.
If he was down, he wouldn’t be down long. He’d be itching to get back to making his rounds, which always included a stop at Leatherwood Grocery, where he’d sit around and talk about our little part of the world with shopkeeper Larry McNeely and customers such as Jesse Jones, Gerald Hodnett and Carroll Garrett.
I met Vernon in 2016 when I wrote an article about him for another newspaper. There were a few times in my journalism career that I’ve gone into places that made me afraid, and to be honest, this was one of them. I was to wait on the side of the road for two men I’d never met before, Vernon and Vance Johnson, his friend and advocate, who would drive me off the road to Vernon’s dilapidated shack hidden deep in the country.
It wasn’t long, though, before I realized that these were two of the finest men I’d ever have the privilege to know.
Vernon lived his whole life in a shack with no electricity nor running water, and Vance was part of a group, which included his wife Gayle Johnson, brothers Rick and Mike Carter, and Lucille Shelton and many more, who were getting him a proper house built.
Vernon was a member of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. My teenage daughter and I have been sitting next to him on the pew ever since we started going there when she was a girl. In fact, we started going there because we respected how the church looked after Vernon, and other ways it took care of its community.
During the week, you’d usually see him in a blue button-up work shirt with “Koonny Frog” stitched on the pocket. On Sundays, he’d be dressed to the nines in a suit. He handed out the church bulletins.
For the first few years, my daughter didn’t understand his banter. When he would see us, a big grin would spread over his face and his eyes would twinkle as he would ask jovially, “How’s that lil’ ole’ mean girl?” She would look alarmed and as soon as we were in private, she would ask me in a panicked voice why he thought she was mean, and I would explain that was his humorous term of endearment.
“You be a good little girl now!” he would tell her whenever we parted ways. (One day in my driveway when a cat jumped down from his pickup and walked away, he called out to her, “You be a good little kitty now!”)
As she got older, she grew to understand his way of talking, and to look for him during important moments. He came with me to see her in the plays she was in, and she made him his birthday cakes.
Vernon worked hard all his life, as a grave-digger, and pulling tobacco, and in a saw mill. He continued working in recent years, weed eating for friends and for pay.
But also in his later years, he started doing things he’d never done before: going to the library, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, an outdoor concert at the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center & Museum, and live theater.
After church one Sunday, he came with my daughter and me on errands in Danville, including his first (and last) time at a Starbucks. As we drove down Mountain Valley Road from the church to Route 58, he told us who lived in every single house for the full 8 miles, except for one. For years after, I teased him about not knowing about that one house, and he’d always reply, “Well I didn’t know who it was then because they had just moved in, but I know now.”
Koonny Frog loved to sing karaoke, and even when he lived in that shack without electricity, he had a karaoke machine that ran off batteries. When he moved into his fine modern house, he got a fancy new one. It was kept in a place of pride in a room filled with his more than 300 country music cassette tapes and dozens of CDs.
He also kept an astonishing amount of records, with notebooks full of topics such as his tobacco work, country music and the weather. He was a walking encyclopedia on the subjects which interested him.
We went out to dinner at Hugo’s with a group that included Charles Roark and for some reason, maybe change for the dinner bill, Charles gave Vernon $65 and Vernon would not accept it and Charles told him to put it in the collection plate on Sunday and that Sunday morning Vernon proudly stuffed it in an envelope, wrote “Koonny Frog” on it and beamed with pleasure as he laid that on the plate.
Early on when we knew each other, I needed help with a house repair, putting up heavy new clapboard where I had removed old, rotted wood. Even though his hands were so stiff he couldn’t hold a hammer well, he helped me. Afterward, I held out some pay. “You’re supposed to help people in need,” he said with gruff emotion, refusing the money.
Vernon has had what anyone would call a very difficult life, but it never seemed to get him down. He played the hand he was dealt with grace, good cheer and kindness. As the community rallied around him in his final years, his life was much easier.
Every now and then, but not too often, God puts a special person like Vernon along your path. Rest in peace, Koonny Frog. You will be missed, and you were and you remain well loved.