The Port Arthur News
SABINE PASS —
It is said that Robert Lee Eldridge’s loquacious nature earned him the nickname “Gabby.” But Adam Saunders remembers the man affectionately known to residents as the “unofficial mayor” of Sabine Pass as quiet and unassuming.
“He fit right in there with everybody else, and I think that's what we all loved about him,” said Saunders, director of the Robert “Bob” Bowers Civic Center and Sabine Pass native. “If you walked in a room, you wouldn't necessarily know that he was the big mover and shaker around town.”
Eldridge died at approximately 1 a.m. Wednesday, at Calder Woods Nursing Home in Beaumont. He was 82.
“He loved Sabine Pass, and a lot of people loved him,” said Terri Thompson, Eldridge’s daughter.
Eldridge’s life was a testament to that. According to The News archives, after assisting in the restoration of the Sabine Pass cemetery, Eldridge lobbied to have Jefferson County take over maintenance. And whenever there were concerns in his community, it was Eldridge who ensured that officials in both Austin and Washington, D.C. took notice.
“He would step up in Austin for the whole area,” said Sam Monroe, president of Lamar State College-Port Arthur who knew Eldridge through his work on the college’s foundation board. “He had a lot of friends in high places.”
The owner of R.L. Eldridge Construction and Gabby’s Dock fought to keep the Dick Dowling Lions Club chapter alive — a lifetime member, he served as president for many years. As chairman of the Lions Water Park Committee, Eldridge helped to secure a $25,000 donation from Cheniere Energy, Inc.
“His heart, his soul, bled Sabine Pass, but the people in Port Arthur also held him in high esteem,” said Port Arthur Mayor Deloris “Bobbie” Prince. “He’s going to be missed by all of us.”
Though small, Sabine Pass has a rich, vibrant history — a history that Eldridge fought inexhaustibly to preserve. During the yearly reenactment of the Battle of Sabine Pass at Dick Dowling Days, he furnished his barge as the replica gun boat. Monroe collaborated with Eldridge to install the interpretive center at Dick Dowling Park.
“We worked to get that installed so that a person could get a feel of the historical event that took place,” Monroe said.
The two also raised money to erect a statue of Sabine Pass founder Sam Houston at the Bert Karrer Lions Community Park — which Eldridge worked to acquire and maintain, even donating a portion of the land before securing and refurbishing the 18-mile “Sabine Bank Lighthouse” to be placed in the park.
“He was very interested in preserving the history, and developing Sabine Pass and the whole area,” Monroe said.
All of Eldridge’s efforts ultimately culminated in the community’s decision to name the R.L. “Gabby” Eldridge Center in his honor.
“We found it thoroughly enjoyable how shocked he was,” Saunders said. “For us, we thought, ‘Who else would we name it after?’”
For Saunders, and the rest of Sabine Pass, it is not these milestones they will miss most about Eldridge. It is his presence during the community’s tragedies — some widespread, like Hurricanes Ike and Rita, others small and personal — that stands out in people’s memories of the man who, Saunders said, embodied the unyielding spirit of Sabine Pass.
“You're all equals down there, and Gabby was proof of that,” Saunders said. “He always knew when he came back to Sabine Pass, we would all treat him the same — even though, deep down, we knew he was our top guy.”
Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Clayton Thompson Funeral Home with burial following at Sabine Pass Cemetery. Visitation is from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at the funeral home. The family is asking, in lieu of flowers, for donations to the R.L. “Gabby” Eldridge Endowed Scholarship fund at Lamar State College-Port Arthur. Donations may be mailed to Lamar State College-Port Arthur, P.O. Box 310, Port Arthur, TX 77641.