Oakland developer ‘Buzz’ Gibb ‘had great judgment, unbelievable vision’
By Lou Fancher
Former Oakland police Lt. Paul Berlin first met Clyde R. “Buzz” Gibb in the 1980s at Oakland’s Waterfront Plaza Hotel. Gibb, the gregarious, successful real estate developer who founded Thunderbird Properties and went on to become a primary owner and developer of nearly two dozen Best Western hotels, had purchased and expanded the hotel into a luxury property at Jack London Square in the 1970s.
“He allowed us to hold homicide meetings there and would never charge us,” Berlin said. “I knew about him from us both growing up in Oakland. I only found out later about his being a pilot in World War II, flying a B-24 Liberator in the South Pacific.
“Later, in 1992, a year when we had a record 175 homicides, he felt really bad about the spiral of crime in the city we both grew up in. He knew we didn’t have enough cops and he’d suggest bringing over Alameda County sheriffs. Buzz hated seeing businesses leaving East 14th Street. He respected the work that firemen, cops and emergency responders did.”
Gibb, in addition to hotels, owned a Webster Street gym called the Oakland Athletic Club and as a managing member of the Tahoe Yacht Harbor came to be a major donor to the Lake Tahoe Discovery Center and Museum. As a yachtsman, he and his wife, Joan Gibb, whom he married twice, restored and maintained the Thunderbird, his 55-foot 1939 Hackercraft yacht.
Married four times during his lifetime, he grew up in Oakland, attending Cleveland Elementary and Oakland High School. He was known by his family early in life as “Buster” and earned his adult nickname, “Buzz,” after flying low and buzzing passenger trains during advanced flight training undertaken two years after his enlistment in the Naval Air Corps at age 18 in 1943.
Cops, firefighters, longtime Port of Oakland employees and crime beat news reporters say Gibb was “a real good guy” who lived in many East Bay cities — Oakland’s Montclair district, Piedmont, Berkeley and Lafayette — and loved nothing more than after-work conversations about the area. He allowed the aforementioned groups to run up tabs, and although Gibb seldom if ever mentioned his time in the military, he told stories about odd jobs held to save enough money to buy beloved vehicles he upgraded, such as his first car, a 1928 Model A Ford that Gibb sold two weeks after purchasing it to buy a 1931 Roadster Model A Ford.
Berlin’s own story-filled past includes a 31-year career with the Oakland Police Department during which he focused on solving violent crimes and eliminating or reducing activity at drug corner hot spots in positions such as patrol officer, homicide investigator and commander, SWAT team leader and area commander for West Oakland and downtown. Escaping the rigors of his job to enjoy gardening and recreation at his second home in Tahoe, Berlin recalls learning Gibb had bought the Thunderbird yacht and hired a man locals referred to as “Captain John” to work with him on the boat.
“Captain John was a master craftsmen. Buzz told him he didn’t have many rules but said if he ever found someone working for him was (water) skiing on the back of the Thunderbird, he’d fire them. So John, after about a year, gets a job somewhere else and before he left, he got two buddies — one guy in the boat driving, another going alongside taking pictures — and John goes skiing. Buzz found out, and he fired him. People were talking about it all over the lake. I still have a photo of it. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to do that, so someone must’ve just snitched on John. They always got along, even after that. They joked about it years later.”
Berlin says that Gibb never boasted about his military service during the war or his influence as a real estate developer in Oakland.
“He was gregarious, without a big ego, down to earth, common sense. And he had great judgment, unbelievable vision. He was a person you could make friends with immediately. He fit into any environment and treated people with respect.”
Although Berlin’s work in law enforcement often sought to address police actions that caused African-American residents living in West Oakland to be distrustful of the department, he says Gibb was focused on the city’s more commercial aspects and hotels.
“He was trying to just make the city more pleasurable to be in. Oakland? He wanted it to be a place to enjoy, a place with four- and five-star hotels that never had management problems.”
Gibb passed away Dec. 12 at age 98 in his home on Jupiter Island, Florida. He is survived by his wife, Joan Gibb; sons, Gary Gibb and wife Charlotte, Jeff Gibb and wife Marie, and Jordan Gibb; and four grandchildren, along with many other family members.