Joel Harper Gambrell
January 25, 1957 – March 6, 2020
From the moment on January 25, 1957, that he was placed in his mother’s arms, Joel Harper Gambrell was eager to love every creature — human and animal alike — that he would encounter in his journey through life.
His success at spreading love will be the stuff of legend in his family for generations to come, beginning when he was 3, toddling home with his arms tightly wrapped around a Persian cat. "Tiger" was the first of countless rescues and stayed with Joel through three cross-country transfers, a dozen dogs, herds of hamsters, a gross of guinea pigs, a pair of pigeons, a flying squirrel and "Frank" the white lab rat.
Then there was Penny the pigeon that he found abandoned. He would sit up all night with the downy feathered fledgling, feeding her with a medicine dropper. Naturally, she imprinted him and, as soon as she was capable of flight, she would follow him as he rode to elementary school on his bike. After he’d gone off to class she would flit from window ledge to window ledge until she found his classroom and there she’d stay, waiting for recess and the end of the school day.
In Knoxville, at the house Joel and Wanda have made their home for the last 25 years, you will find countless bird houses and feeders and even food for butterflies. He loved to tell people, "This one is for the bluebirds, this one is for sparrows, and that is the milkweed the monarch butterflies eat. Did you know they are endangered?”
When buying milkweed for the butterflies wasn’t enough, he planted milkweed throughout the yard. When they started disappearing before reaching flight, he got a sanctuary cage that was designed to mimic their life cycles, safe away from predators. Even in the dark, flashlight in hand he would find the caterpillars and relocate them to the sanctuary. He could tell you every detail of the cycle — each phase, how long it lasted, their migration patterns and its timeline.
Joel loved all the creatures he came across. He would spot something he never had seen before and the next thing you knew, he would be holding it, inspecting it, admiring it, researching it and adding its name with the countless others to his friendly internal encyclopedia where all creatures were welcome. One of his most famous projects was saving skunks and the neighbors from each other. He would trap the skunks and release them far out of town, reducing the frequency of curious neighborhood dogs getting sprayed.
Beyond animals, though, was Joel’s love for people and his desire to be of service to them.
In the neighborhood, he was known for always lending a hand.
“It was not uncommon to be outside and hear someone walk up the driveway saying ‘Wanda, we need to borrow Joel again.’ And he would be off to fix a lawnmower or offer any other number of helpful skills. He might be tired, it might be 90 degrees outside, but it always gave him joy to help people, and he saw it as an honor when someone sought him out for help. The kind of help never mattered.“ He was also known for inviting airmen into his home when they had nowhere to go for the holidays.
“When someone in his squadron was alone, too far away to be with their family, he would invite them to join our family for Thanksgiving,” says Eva. “It saddened him to know someone would be alone in the mess hall on that kind of day. So he made sure they had the option of enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal with friends instead. Faces that arrived shy warmed throughout the meal and said good night with a smile, and a hug that you knew came from pure appreciation.” Even when he was a little guy, he was reaching out to people, even scary Miss Ruth, recalls sister Susan.
“Miss Ruth lived across the street from us in Winston-Salem. We all thought she must have been about 100 years old, but in retrospect she was 60 something. Her house was old and creaky and she could be a little scary at times with her thick glasses and really long, dark hair. Joel must have been around 10; I was 4. He just rode up to her front door and introduced himself.”
Susan remembers Miss Ruth making sugar cakes each Christmas that she asked Joel to deliver, one to each neighbor. He’d show up with a wagon, sometimes with Susan tagging along. After they made their deliveries, the pair would return to Miss Ruth’s house for their own private pieces to share with Miss Ruth.
“If Joel hadn’t first knocked on her door, the three of us never would have had that special time together,” says Susan.
It was during his deliveries of sugar cakes that he met the Rivers. Susan remembers that they weren’t as old Miss Ruth, but needed help nonetheless. “Thurmond was the husband and Jimmie was the wife. She wore an elevated shoe as one leg was shorter than the other. She also had crippling arthritis in her hands and they were all gnarled up.”
Joel would help them with yard work, Susan says.
“He just shrugged his shoulders and said he could relate to her crooked fingers.”
It was at the ripe old age of 4 he began the first of six surgeries to fix his hands — his little finger was fused to the ring finger on each hand. Each surgery required weeks in the hospital and a cast for months on each arm extending to the elbow. Nurses and doctors alike could rely on a lifted spirit after a visit to the remarkable little guy with the beaming smile and “Poochie," a stuffed-animal companion toy, acceptable for hospital duty. Despite the surgeries, his hands were never quite fixed.
But then what do you do with two hands that don't work exactly right?
In Joel’s case, he learned to play the piano.
By the time he reached high school he had written several pieces that amazed the family — and the young ladies. His love of music and the constant work on his hands extended into playing the saxophone in the marching band and becoming the family music master. Joel's elder brother Gary remembers Joel being the first in the family to discover The Mamas and The Papas, The Beach Boys and all that other “hippie" music, according to his mom and dad.
Joel’s daughter Eva also remembers her dad once, after years of not playing any instrument, picking up the sax and sitting at the piano, and all of a sudden his tinkering becoming beautiful music. “He hadn’t touched either in years, but he could still play away any time the moment caught him.”
Daughter-in-law, Renee’ recalls he never missed a performance when one of his grandchildren was playing in the band. “His eyes lit up as the band would start. They twinkled as the band played on, and his smile would last the evening seeing Sidney on the drums or Katey singing or playing her French horn. He was the first to his feet with the loudest applause, and a smile that can only come from a proud papa seeing his grandchild create beauty that he loved so much.” Wanda adds, “Joel had the same response watching David and Eva play in their band concerts.”
Music man, animal and people lover, Joel was also an avid outdoorsman — any weather, any terrain, any time. A bad day outside was better than a great day under a roof — unless the Tennessee Volunteers were playing, and then his family just understood the world moved inside to watch the game. And not just any game, or one sport; Joel was a loyal fan to ALL UT athletics. Nothing filled him with more “Go Big Orange” spirit than participating in the Vol Walk and cheering on the Pride of the Southland Band. So much so, that the lower floor of his home is a dedication in all things Vol Orange. But when the Vols were not being broadcast, and he was stuck inside, he had to be tinkering and doing something. Idly sitting still and doing nothing was never an option.
His love of outdoors was a character trait he got from his father. Clyde was an electrical engineer working as a subcontractor to NASA, and was twice transferred from North Carolina to California during the fledgling days of NASA's manned space flight program. The journey each way took up to seven days, and the family camped in a tent each night.
"My mother was a saint. Can you imagine driving eight hours, unloading the car, cooking dinner for the family on a two-burner propane stove, cooking breakfast at daybreak, loading up and doing it all over again?”, Gary recalls Joel saying more than once. “The good news is that we visited almost every national park on the way — Yellowstone, Yosemite, Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater.” Joel loved the outdoors so much that he even taught himself arctic survival and ice fishing. Once, while he was in the Air Force in Alaska, his truck actually froze to the ice-covered lake.
"The choice was either to wait for the thaw and let it fall through, or drag it off with an Air Force half-track. As the lake was around 800 feet deep and we didn't have a submarine, the Air Force was minus one vehicle for a few hours that day,” Joel laughed.
It was during his first assignment in Idaho, that the young airman made another big change in his life. It was here, in December of 1980, that Joel met Wanda.
Wanda remembers the day well: Joel was shopping in the BX (Base Exchange) where Wanda worked in the stock room. While Wanda was on the sales floor, he asked for help with a large pot for a fern that he had in his dorm room. The next time they saw each other was at Pizza Inn during lunch, where the two sat and talked for a bit. Before leaving each other that day, he asked if she’d like to meet to go for a motorcycle ride. Wanda, of course, said yes — “because he gave me butterflies.” Wanda didn't tell him she probably would have agreed to any date he suggested. By the end of the ride, the two had fallen for each other. And in October of 1981 with David, Eva and their closest friends as witnesses, the two wed. “Joel is and will always be the love of my life,” Wanda said.
Within months, Joel's contagious love of all creatures great and small grew the new Gambrell family. For starters, Son David remembers two doves, three tropical fish tanks, a lizard tank, nine rabbits, a cat, dogs and AJ the piranha.
Throughout the years there was Blooper, the family parakeet that Joel taught to wolf-whistle and sing “Dixie” (the last note always flat but he never gave up on him), Sony the cockatiel that used her beak to groom Joel’s mustache every night, also Tabatha, Rolletta and Sadie. Joel’s Westie Abi was the only fur baby still home with them. The ones that journeyed to the Rainbow Bridge before him shared extraordinarily long lives because they were extraordinarily loved and appreciated by Joel as a member of the family. The loss of each was deep for Joel. As quick as a breeze would go by, Joel could think of a memory of one of them, and tears would well in his signature blue eyes.
Joel retired as a technical sergeant after 20 years of distinguished service in the United States Air Force. His service had begun as a navigational aids equipment specialist at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho. It continued at Eielson AFB in Alaska and Edwards AFB in California. He spent his final four years in the Air Force as a recruiter of the highest integrity in Knoxville. He was awarded Air Force Achievement, Air Force Commendation, Small Arms Marksman, NCO Professional Military Education, Outstanding Unit and several other medals. He also earned Associate degrees in electronic systems and personnel administration during his service. He joined the Baptist Church while in Idaho.
Joel’s family says his character was never more apparent than when he served as a recruiter. During his early months in the Air Force the stories he heard from other young airmen stuck with him. The young men bitterly recounted the lies they had been told. “No one told us it would be like this,” was the common complaint he heard.
Joel had to think long and hard before transferring to the Recruiting Command. He determined that he would be nothing but honest with anyone considering the military.
This, at times, cost him recruits. Sometimes they would change their minds and join a different branch. Yet Joel never sacrificed his integrity, even though monthly quotas for new recruits had to be filled. He faced the consequences and held his head high because he knew truth and honor were what counted in the end. The ultimate patriot, Joel felt so much pride when his recruits would return to him after basic training and tech school, each with nearly identical words – “Thank you for being so honest and telling me the truth about everything. I was well prepared.” Dozens and dozens of the young men and women of Knoxville would return to laud praises and gratitude upon Joel for his truthful and heartfelt description of Air Force life and the meaning of service to God and country. He took great pride in starting recruits down the right path as they began their Air Force journey.
After Joel retired from the Air Force, he worked 10 years at Smith's Detection in Alcoa, Tennessee. He began by building uniquely designed X-ray systems for food products. He was soon promoted to senior electro/mechanical technician where he oversaw quality control, supervised maintenance of the customer feedback data base and audited all internal training programs.
When Smith's Detection was sold to Mettler-Toledo in 2010, he took his skills to Best ABT Molecular Imaging in Louisville, Tennessee. He was part of the initial team responsible for transitioning the BG75 Biomarker Generator from a prototype design to a commercial product that meets customers' needs. Joel’s many years of experience and attention to detail were critical in collaborating with the design engineers to create a reliable system, from writing manufacturing instructions to standardizing the magnet mapping of the BG particle accelerator. Joel was also part of the Quality Assurance Department as an expert ISO Auditor, and a member of the Radiation Safety Department performing daily contamination tests for the entire factory. The biomarker generators that Joel helped build and assemble are used in clinical settings throughout the world in Positron Emission Tomography (PET imaging).
It is through his work at Best ABT Joel leaves us all with a reminder that miracles do happen.
Using congenitally deformed hands which were rebuilt and retrained over decades, Joel built delicate circuit boards and electronic components for these machines that help physicians diagnose and treat cancers every day. Joel’s craftsmanship will continue to touch the lives of thousands of people he will never meet.
Joel was kind, strong and limitless with his love, but apparently not invincible. This past October, Joel survived a 20-foot fall from a tree with a running chain saw in his hands. He said he learned his lesson and wouldn’t wish four broken ribs on anyone.
But then on Wednesday, March 4, of this year, he chose not to watch the birds at his feeders, he chose not to call on his neighbors asking what project he could help them with. He decided instead to move a piece of furniture into his wood shop for repairs.
He fell four feet with the furniture in tow.
He hit in exactly the wrong place, breaking his neck.
Despite the best efforts of his neighbors who were performing CPR in less than a minute, despite a dozen EMTs, sheriff’s deputies and firemen on the scene just a few minutes later, his massive heart and loving soul were gone.
At the hospital, a ventilator kept him breathing for two days. Joel had always said the only thing he ever wanted to be plugged into was a keg and Tennessee Volunteer sports. And so, with the Air Force Song and Rocky Top playing loud and proud, on March 6, the ventilator was turned off, and Joel's soul slipped the surly bonds of this Earth – fewer than 48 hours after laughing with family and friends.
Joel was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to the late Clyde Harper Gambrell, Jr., a Clemson University graduate, Air Force veteran, and electrical engineer for Western Electric and AT&T; and the late Imogene Bledsoe Gambrell, accomplished musician, housewife, and later administrative assistant for AT&T. He leaves behind his loving wife of 39 years, Wanda Withers Gambrell, most recently an office manager for Mayfield Dairy; two heartbroken adult children David Wilson, delivery specialist for FedEx and Eva Wilson, billing specialist for PYA; three siblings who say that everything good in them came from Joel, to include elder brother Gary Gambrell, US Navy veteran, now retired in Bonita Springs, Florida; sister Susan Gambrell Leek, a Certified Dental Assistant, of Burlington, N.C.; and Kyle Gambrell, a successful entrepreneur in both printing services and construction in Tampa, Florida. Joel also leaves behind adoring grandchildren Sidney Wilson and Kathryn Wilson; cherished nieces Lindsey, Savannah, Rachel, Grace and Harper; and 16 first cousins, their families, children and grandchildren that will forever be imprinted with his beaming smile. In lieu of flowers, the family would very much appreciate donations be made in Joel’s memory to Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, www.ijams.org, 865-577-4717 x 123.
Our hope is that you will be moved to continue Joel’s good work, and to add your voice and thoughts on this site.
We can hear Joel saying right now, “Good grief, y’all. Too much. Go Vols !!!”
No services are scheduled at this time. Receive a notification when services are updated.
Joel Harper Gambrell
March 23, 2020
I was a classmate of Joel’s at Oldtown Elementary school. He sat at the desk behind me and I was constantly turned around in my seat, being entertained by Joel. I remember him showing me the scars on his hands and explaining the surgeries he’d had. We became fast friends and, I have thought of this often through the years, when the teacher chastised me for turning around in my seat and talking and laughing, Joel tried to take the responsibility. I’ve always believed that the teacher (Mr. Webb) went a little easier on me because of that. I have never forgotten him and his kind blue eyes and infectious smile. And I am not surprised to read about the incredible man he grew up to be. My sincere condolences to his family. May your grief soon be tempered with wonderful memories.
March 17, 2020
I can't remember a time I didn't know Joel. Summer days at Crystal Lake and building model rockets. Joel turned me on to Pink Floyd in his basement bedroom, black lights and all...Joel was the coolest dude.
March 14, 2020
I never knew Joel and only heard of him when his friend asked our prayer warriors to pray for him. While reading the obituary I found tears in my eyes. I wish I had known this a great man. May our loving Lord comfort Joel's family by knowing he will live again and there will be no more tears.
March 14, 2020
What an amazing tribute to Joel's Life. Working with him for the last 16 years, I have heard many of the same stories. Simply put, "I am richer and more blessed being a friend of Joel's". To know Joel was to love Joel. We have laughed, we have cried, we have dreamed, we have shared joys, we have shared frustrations. Someday God Willing we ill share once again. Joel isn't gone, he will live in me. Somehow, it's hard to envision nature and not think of my friend...
March 13, 2020
What an absolutely beautiful testament to a beautiful soul.
Sending prayers and condolences to all Joel's family and friends. He will be so missed.
March 11, 2020
My deepest condolences for the family. I pray your many wonderful memories will be of great comfort to you. Praying for you all.
March 11, 2020
I had the pleasure of working with Joel. He was such a great guy. I never saw him in a bad mood, or without a smile on his face. He will be sadly missed by many. RIP Joel.
Dianne Crissman Sorrell
March 11, 2020
I knew Joel and his family when we were children and neighbors. He was kindhearted and cheerful, and we all had many good times together going swimming in summertime and sledding when there was enough snow. Susan, Gary and Kyle, you have my deepest condolences for your sudden and unexpected loss, and may you be comforted by happy memories.
March 11, 2020
We meet Joel and Wanda at Eielson AFB back in the late 80’s and then continued the friendship when they got stationed at Edwards in the 90’s.
Joel was such a happy go lucky guy and I can not believe he is gone. He will be missed by so many. He was taken way to young. RIP Joel, I hope you have your MAGA hat with you.
March 11, 2020
Prayers being lifted for all of Joel's family and friends. He had such an infectious smile. May comfort, strength and peace prevail in the journey of grief that lies ahead. May the joy of memories help on the dark days.
March 10, 2020
I knew Joel back in high school through about the time he left for the Air Force. When I think of Joel, I can only smile and maybe even laugh a little about some of the funny hijinx back in the day. I'll always remember his unique snap of the fingers. He was a kind soul who enjoyed life. I'm praying for his heart broken family and friends. RIP Joel.
March 10, 2020
Joel and I go way back, we were out of touch for about 25 years. We picked right back up with our love for birds, butterflies and all animals. I will truly miss him this butterfly season. Fly high my friend, until we meet again.
March 10, 2020
Joel was one of the first people who befriended me at the x-ray company, and we worked together for over a decade. He was always such a cheerful and kind hearted person and had a very positive outlook on life.
We shared many common opinions on politics and culture. We worked together on Engineering, Quality, and Production issues and I always found him to be very professional and goal-oriented. What a joy Joel was to know. What a shock it is to lose him so soon.
Sincere condolences to his family.
March 10, 2020
Joel and Wanda are dear friends from Mt. Home AFB. We were neighbors there. Had such good times riding motorcycles and camping. So many good memories. When my daughter Rachel was born Joel named her Stinky Baby and that name has stuck with her ever since. Rachel loved watching Joel's fish, especially E J the piranha. He would let her feed his Oscars worms she found. She loved going over to their house all the time. She loved the rabbits Joel had there as well. I'll never forget when they bought a camping trailer and Joel took leave to work on it and an SP in a van hit it and took the whole side of the trailer off when he hit it. Joel and I just stood out there amazed. Love this family.
March 10, 2020
Too many to pick from but, I worked long enough with Joel, when we met he was like Radar. A wave was all it took to signal how he was and what was in his head. Such a gentle soul that he literally cared about all and animals was at the top of his list. All the stories about Abigail and Sadie would fill up a book. I’ll still share a wave but not having it returned will take some getting used to. I’ll still wave though. God Bless my friend Joel Harper....