It was 1983, and Grace and Walter Pilot were at a crossroads in their lives. The company Walter helped build for 10 years was in turmoil.
The couple had already purchased a house in Atlanta where Walter soon would be transferred as part of a corporate restructuring.
But Walter was a self-made man who had his own ideas about how to be successful – ideas that worked
And Grace had the strength of her faith and a belief that. together, they could take a risk and make a better life at home in Mobile, AL.
“I told him. ‘You know who got all the business for that company, and you know what you can do,” she recalled.
Pilot & Associates was born at their kitchen table, where Grace handled bookkeeping and payroll, and Walter built the business with the help of their children.
Today, Pilot Catastrophe Services is the nations largest catastrophe adjusting firm, employing thousands, with corporate offices in Mobile and offices spread throughout the nation.
When Walter D. Pilot Sr. died in 1991, Grace, along with their children. stepped in to help run the family business. Today, she serves as secretary and treasurer. Pilot Catastrophe continues to grow as the Pilot family guides the business based on its foundational values of honesty, integrity and quality control
It is a success story that has earned Grace Pilot the distinction of becoming one of only three women ever to be inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame since its founding in 1973. In November 2012 she joined an elite list of 160 of the state’s most distinguished business leaders, including UMobiles Board of Trustees Chairman J.L Bedsole, George Washinaton Carver and William Albert Bellingrath.
Among the criteria for selection are business leaders whose accomplishments include making a significant impact on the development of community and state by promoting the free enterprise system and entrepreneurship, demonstrating civic leadership, and philanthropy and humanitarianism toward their fellow citizens.
While Grace excels in all areas, it is in the final area – that of philanthropy – that she finds the greatest joy. Among those who benefit from her belief in sharing her blessings are students at the University of Mobile.
In her modest office at Pilot Catastrophe in west Mobile, where walls and shelves are filled with framed photographs of family arranged side-by-side with awards and honors from organizations across the nation, Grace spoke about being blessed, and sharing those blessings.
Born in Choctaw County, AL, Grace was the third eldest of 10 children, growing up in a three-bedroom home where the children slept three to a bed.
“We didn’t have anything, but we had love. That’s just the way we grew up” she said.
As a child, she watched her father, grocer Herman Giles, give produce from his 5-acre garden to those in need. One Christmas, after she was grown and married, her father asked for a specific Christmas present from his children. Don’t spend their money on presents for mom and dad; instead, donate whatever they planned to spend to Hickory Grove Baptist Church for the pastorium building fund.
“I got my giving ways from my daddy” Grace reflected.
But as the Pilots’ business was starting, there wasn’t much to give.
“I’ve always been charitable-minded, but I couldn’t do a lot back then,” she recalled. In May 1983 they started the business with $2,500 in their bank account. She, Walter and two men joining the venture sat around the kitchen table, calculating what they may need to squeak by for the company in its first year. It would be tight.
“I tell people I remember when I couldn’t give you a dime. I want to always remember those days” she said.
A few months later, Hurricane Alicia hit Texas and the firm was on its feet, supplying adjusters to insurance companies during disasters. With its long history of providing a knowledgeable, trusted and reliable claims processing operation with long-term partnerships with adjusters, insurance carriers and emergency management agencies, Pilot Catastrophe has been described as “the only GOOD thing about a disaster.”
The company’s success provided the Pilots with more financial freedom to invest in their passion to help people better themselves. It gave Grace the flexibility to invest her own time and leadership to organizations such as the University of Mobile, Alabama Baptist Children’s Home, JH Ranch leadership programs and ministries in California and Israel, Howard Payne University in Texas where she was an advisor to the president and later awarded the honorary Doctor of Humanities degree, among many others.
The list is long. The impact is lasting. The investment is personal.
One example: Grace was named the First Lady of Mobile in 2005 by Beta Sigma Phi for her ideas and commitment to others through her daily acts of love, friendship and generosity. Among those acts was baking her special sour cream and lemon pound cakes for hundreds of employees working long hours in the corporate office, when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992. Then she baked an extra 40 pound cakes and sent them to employees in Florida affected by the storm.
‘Partial to UMobile’
Sitting on her office credenza is a framed photograph of Grace, pen in hand, with UMobile President Dr. Mark Foley in his campus office. She had just signed the paperwork establishing the Dr. E. Grace Pilot Endowed Scholarship to benefit UMobile students.
“I’m very partial to the University of Mobile,” Grace said. “I’ve been so proud of the university and what it stands for.
A good college education with the right principles and standards means so much to me”
With nine siblings, college was never an option for her. She doesn’t want that lack of financial ability to limit others.
” I think there’s no better way to give back than to do something like that (establish an endowed scholarship). It benefits people who maybe couldn’t go to college, like me. I think back to when didn’t have a choice, and there was no one to help me” she said.
She said attending the annual Mobile Endowed Scholarship Luncheon gives her an opportunity to meet the students who are benefiting from her endowed scholarship. The students have sent her notes, and she sees first-hand how her investment in their lives is paying off.
Scholarship recipient Daniel Dearborn sat beside Grace at the 2011 luncheon, and appreciated the opportunity to thank her for making a difference in his life.
“The scholarship meant everything to me and to my college career,” the 2012 graduate said recently:”Without it, chances are pretty higß shat i would not have been able to atiered my last semester and, therefore, twould not have graduated when I did.”
Grace also sees the university’s impact in her own family – and her family’s influence at the university.
Grandson Davis Pilot III graduated from UMobile in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science in business administration with a concentration in managerial entrepreneurship. Currently, he is enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program, serves as a graduate assistant in the School of Business, and is a leader in the award-winning Students in Free Enterprise program.
Daughter Daphne Pilot Fonde attended Mobile College in the mid ’70s and now serves as a member oF the UMobile Board of Trustees as well as a vice president at Pilot Catastrophe.
“The University of Mobile is projecting the Christian and godly values that we hold dear. I believe the future of our country lies with our young people. If we grow godly men and women, then we can change this country. It’s time for Christians to stand up. That’s what I believe God is doing at the University of Mobile, raising up those godly leaders,” Daphne said.
It is at that intersection of faith and action, of belief and passion, that Grace and the University of Mobile are building a lasting legacy.
Moments of Grace
One thing underlies all that Grace Pilot is and does, and that is her faith in God.
“It’s been the basis of it all. My faith has been what has gotten us through so many times. You pray daily for the business, for your siblings, for your family” she said.
It’s a faith that she shares freely with others, and she counts it as one of her most precious blessings that her children also have a strong faith.
“She is the anchor that holds us together,” Daphne said. “She’s the one who always took us to church. She’s the cornerstone of our family, the cornerstone of our business. She’s the prayer warrior. She’s always been on her knees – she’s always been our example.”
As a family, the Pilots put their faith into action through a variety of philanthropic projects, in addition to the University of Mobile. Many of the projects bear Grace’s name, as a testament to her faith, influence and love. There are two Grace Chapels, Pilot House for women in crisis, and a large cross stands at the peak of Grace Mountain in California, providing a serene setting for prayer and reflection.
Then there is Camp Grace in Mobile, started by son Davis Pilot Jr. Camp Grace is a privately owned and operated property of over 220 acres in Mobile County complete with cabins, recreation center, pavilions, a lodge and activities such as swimming, boating, archery, inflatables, ropes course, horseback riding, athletic courts and more.
Grace serves on the board of Camp Grace, which hosts four special-needs, week-long residential summer camps in cooperation with area agencies:
• Camp M*A*S*H* (Make Arthritis Stop Hurting) for ages 7-17, in partnership with the Arthritis Foundation, Southeast Region
• Camp Rap-A-Hope for ages 7-17 battling cancer, in partnership with the Medical Society and the Alliance to the Medical Society of Mobile County
• Camp SMILE for ages 5-50 with and without disabilities, in partnership with United Cerebral Palsy of Mobile
• Camp Sugar Falls for children with diabetes, in partnership with Southeastern Diabetes Education Services.
• Camp Grace is also the grounds for Outback America’s events in Mobile, which is a non-denominational ministry designed to build, restore and strengthen relationships.
• The many projects have one thing in common – they provide a variety of people in a variety of circumstances with moments of joy, encouragement, support – and grace.
The success of Pilot Catastrophe is “beyond my comprehension,” Grace said. It took hard work, sacrifice, and a family pulling together to work long hours. It is that family – five children, 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild – that makes the hard work worthwhile.
Also beyond comprehension is the impact that she continues to make through her faith, her giving nature, her passion for life and for helping others to live their own lives to the fullest.
“Phenomenal” said Daphne, when pushed to describe her mother in just one word, but the words continue to flow.
“She’s dignity. She’s special. She’s loved. She has passion. She gives it her all. She loves the Lord and loves everybody around her.”
But maybe, Daphne said, there is one word that fits.
“The word that describes her most is her name – Grace.”
A Close Encounter with Dr. Tom Bilbo
There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 of the Third Kind, in which lab-coated- scientists crammed shoulder-to-shoulder peer intently out as an alien spacecraft lands.
Freeze the frame. Look closely at the tall man entering the picture from the left. He’s about 32, wears sunglasses and a white lab coat, and is jockeying for a prime spot from which to observe the first close encounter of extraterrestrial life.
For a nano-second, Dr. Tom Bilbo is immortalized on the big screen. It’s a bit part, these “extras” who briefly flirted with fame and the famous like Spielberg and Richard Dreyfus during the summer of 1976 when Hollywood came to film in a couple of aircraft hangars at Mobile’s Brookley Field.
Bilbo said he was in several additional scenes, repeatedly climbing up and down ladders to observe the “spacecraft” for take after take. Most of those cinematic moments must have ended up on the cutting room floor, he surmised.
But the summer job was simply a precursor to the starring role that Bilbo would have for the next 36 years as a science professor at the University of Mobile.
A Special Moment
Carrying the University of Mobile Ceremonial Mace, Dr. Bilbo led the procession of faculty and students into the Mobile Civic Center for graduation exercises May 2012. It is an honor reserved for a retiring professor who has served the university well, whom colleagues respect and students love.
It was a special moment.
“It was more emotional than I thought it would be,” Bilbo said, admitting he was misty-eyed as he walked at the head of the procession then stood at attention on the stage, mace in hand, watching the 2012 graduating class file in.
“I thought back over my 36 years at the university, all the faculty and students I worked with. I thought about colleagues like Dr. Elizabeth French, Dwight Steedley, Billy Hinson, Ted Mashburn, and all the others. I felt like it was an honor to work with them and teach with them,” he said.
He thought about the students – 36 years of science majors who are now pathologists, science teachers, doctors – 36 years of students who took a few science courses such as meteorology simply to fill an elective requirement, but learned also about encouragement, passion and caring.
“I was just thinking back over the years. I was 32 when I started here and I had never worked any place more than three years before that. It just felt like home after awhile, he said.
As the last notes of the processional lated away, Bilbo’s thoughts turned to r more practical matter.
“I was wondering if I was putting The mace in the stand right, and hoping I didn’t blow that,” he said with a laugh.
A Cherished Honor
Before he arrived at the University of Mobile, then Mobile College, Dr. Bilbo had earned a Bachelor of Science in science education from Mississippi College, a master’s in science education from Auburn University, and received a National Science Foundation grant to earn his master’s in combined sciences from the University of Mississippi.
After obtaining this degree, he took mobile science labs to middle schools in Harrison County, MS and conducted labs at schools that were damaged by Hurricane Camille and without adequate facilities or scientific equipment. He then earned a doctorate in science education and biology from the University of Southern Mississippi.
He heard from a friend about a job opening at Mobile College, and arrived just in time to participate in the city’s fascination with extraterrestrials and Hollywood.
When classes began in fall of 1976, Bilbo was a biology instructor in the Division of Natural Science – a department that included only five faculty and encompassed biology, chemistry and mathematics. He taught anatomy and physiology, ecology, general biology and labs.
During his career, Bilbo was honored with several awards from the school, including the Circle K Division Teaching Award in 1978 and the ‘ Tacommon Fox Award” in 1984, givers in recognition of uncommon, unastd and unrelenting service by a facuh member.
He received the prestigious William A. Megginson Teaching Award in 1997 for demonstrating excellence in teaching. But his most cherished honor occurred in 1980, when he met Terre Kannon.
Jerre recalls it like this:
“In January 1980, Dr. Eugene Keebler (academic vice president and dean) was speaking at an evangelism conference in Valdosta, GA where my dad was a pastor and in attendance. At the conclusion of his talk, Dr. Keebler put out a request to pray for nursing instructors that he needed to hire.
“At the end of the session, my parents went down to speak to Dr.
Keebler and told him that I was in my last semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and they were wondering where I was going to get a job. The Lord answered prayer in an amazing fashion! I was hired and began teaching nursing and religion at the University of Mobile in summer 1980,” she said.
That summer, Tom met Jerre. They were engaged in September, married by Christmas, and will celebrate their 32nd anniversary this year. Jerre was an instructor in nursing and religion from 1980-85, took a break from the las room to be a stay-at-home mom, ther taught for another stint in the School of Nursing from 2002-2007.
Bilbo reprised his brief cinematic appearance in 2009, appearing in the YouTube classic “University of Mobile 12 Days of Registration” promoting early registration.
Wearing a white lab coat, carrying a colorful model of the sun, earth and moon, the professor is seen hurrying across the screen as students sing “On the second day of registration I really meant to go and get Meteorology with Dr. Bilbo.”
The jingle played off the well-known fact that Bilbo’s popular meteorology class was one of the first to fill up during registration each year.
Meghan Dove ’08, said students signed up for meteorology thinking it would be an easy class, “but you really had to work at it. It was easier to comprehend compared to biology and chemistry. It’s something you can use in everyday life.”
A member of the UMobile golf team from Canada, Dove said she took the class because her teammates told her it was the best class to take to educate Canadians on hurricanes and tornadoes vs. snowstorms.
“There was never a dull moment in his class. You were either laughing or intrigued by what he was saying.” said Dove, now social community coordinator in the marketing department of The Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto.
John Blackwell ’01 said in a post on the University of Mobile Alumni Facebook page that Bilbo was a fun professor. “Humility and accessibility were traits that he exemplified,” said the associate pastor and minister of music at Bayou Sara Baptist Church in Saraland, AL. “He was a very kind and caring professor! A tremendous man of character.”
Debby Faught ’12, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer serving in Tuscaloosa, AL as media and public relations coordinator with United Saints Recovery Project, said, “Dr. Bilbo is a very passionate person and you can tell that by the way he teaches. Not everyone can talk about clouds and weather patterns for hours and keep people interested. He prepared countless labs that let us put the text into practice.”
Bilbo said he loved teaching meteorology – a course he started teaching around 1985.
“Once I taught it once or twice, I realized it brings all the sciences together,” he said.
Then there are the Bilboisms.
In addition to a propensity to talk about the weather in Yuma, AZ, Bilbo was known for his flat delivery of witty sayings, dry sense of humor and puns. If you weren’t listening closely, you were likely to miss them, so students paid attention.
Dove recalled Bilbo’s approach to asking questions or imparting information.
“He would make a statement kind of like in the form of a question. Then he’d give the answer, and he’d say ‘Ringgghhhht.’ If there was no reaction from us, he’d say the other ‘Ritiggghhhht.””
“He’s a lot of fun to be around,” said Derek Dupuis ’08, 7th grade math teacher at Faith Academy in Mobile.
“He liked to give his ‘seal of approval’ and make the noise a seal would make – urrrk, urrrk, urrrk – and clap his hands like a seal,” Dupuis said.
Bilbo recalled the time he decided to stop with the seal of approval. It was during a dinner at the Grand Hotel celebrating UMobile President Mark Foley’s decade anniversary at the school. Bilbo had been the faculty member representative on the presidential search committee that recommended Foley, and he and Jerre were at the celebration dinner.
Bilbo gave Foley his seal of approval.
“He just smiled and acknowledged it,” Bilbo recalled, adding he realized as he was giving his seal of approval that it might not be the most appropriate setting.
Smoothing over embarrassing moments – helping students learn despite a wrong answer in class – this is part of the approach Bilbo takes in class and why his trademark “Riiighhhhht, Rinighhhht” is so often lovingly mimicked by students.
“Usually I try to smooth over the wrong answers, Bilbo said. “I’ll say, good answer, good answer, but let’s go with..and I’ll say the right answer. I hate to put anybody down or embarrass them for the wrong answer.
“I want them to respond in class.
If you are negative or cut them off and embarrass them, they will never do it again. You want them to talk. You want to encourage them, not discourage them.
“I think it’s probably the most important thing I did while I was at the university, both for students and beginning faculty. Everybody is unsure of themselves – and faculty needed encouragement just like students need encouragement. They all knew I had their best interest at heart”
Dr. Larissa Parsley Walker, chair of the Department of Natural Sciences and assistant professor of biology, said Bilbo is “a wonderful blend of both experience and enthusiasm, which earned him respect from his students and friendship with his colleagues.
“If I could describe him in one word, it would be ‘encourager.!’ He encouraged his students to do their best in everything they did, not just in the classroom. He genuinely enjoved getting to know students, and he would chat with them about football as often as he may give them advice about a personal situation in their lives. They valued his opinion, and this motivated them in a great way.”
Walker said Bilbo encouraged his colleagues just as much as he did students.
“Personally, I consider Dr. Bilbo to be my mentor, the seasoned and wise professor who always had time to talk with me about the good days and the bad. Like his students, I knew he believed in me, and that gave me confidence in my first years at UMobile.”
Associate Professor of Biology Steve Carey describes Bilbo as “a true Southern gentleman. He always treated his students and co-workers with respect and had a genuine concern for the welfare of his students.”
Dupuis said some of the lessons he learned from Bilbo had more to do with how the professor approached teaching – lessons Dupuis uses now in his own classes.
“You have to care about your students, and you have to let them know that you care. When they know you care about them, they are willing to go above and beyond and work harder for you in class. It was always clear that he cared about me as a student,” Dupuis said. “I’ll always remember that, even years after I had his class, he remembered who I was and was genuine in his concern about how I was doing.
Encountering the Future
Bilbo said he never thought he’d work at one place for so long.
It’s hard to believe. It sneaks up on you” he said.
He prepared for retirement by taking an art class from Phil Counselman, associate professor of art, to revive a long-held interest in painting. He and Jerre have already taken one trip to visit family, and plan more. One trip from years past sticks in his mind, when they stopped by Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, where part of “Close Encounters” was filmed. He gave his movie I.D. badge to the museum there.
He’s been back on campus some this fall.
“I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself, but I want to be back from time to time. I miss everybody,” he said.
Former student Dupuis said he’s sorry future UMobile students won’t get to experience Bilbo’s “hilarity.” But he has no doubt that Bilbo’s impact will be remembered.
“He’s kind of a legend,” Dupuis said. “He lives up to his legend.”