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John George Gabel

Pioneering aerospace engineer, baseball, movie and music fan, great grandfather

John George Gabel, 90, died peacefully at his home in Claremont on August 31 after a very brief illness.

John was born in Tonawanda, New York, August 4, 1928 to Josef Gebel and Terese Svarczkopf, both of whom immigrated as teenagers from the same village in Tur Terebes, Hungary. He was proud of his Hungarian ancestry and visited his parents’ village (now Turulung, Romania) on his 80th birthday.

He graduated from Seneca High School in Buffalo, New York, and attended State University of New York at Buffalo until his college years were interrupted by being drafted for the Korean War, where he served with the US Army’s 2nd Armored Division in Germany as a corporal in the medical corp.

After his Army stint, Mr. Gabel moved to California in 1954 and resumed his education. He enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College where he was awarded the school’s first associate degree in industrial management, and just the second such degree awarded in this field nationwide at that time.

He then began his lifelong career in aerospace engineering. He spent 10 years as a quality control engineer with Aerojet General Corporation in Azusa, California, where he wrote quality control and process standards and supervised quality control engineers. He was a liaison representative with the US Air Force, Navy and Army, and served as a project quality engineer on pioneering rocket projects Vanguard, Ablestar, Delta and Arobee, as well as NATO programs. He enjoyed a memorable time serving as a field quality engineer, testing rockets at Fort Churchill, Northern Manitoba, Canada.

The highlight of Mr. Gabel’s aerospace career was his 25 years with North American Rockwell/Boeing and the excitement of playing a part in the early space race. He was actively involved with the Saturn booster rocket, the Apollo moon module, and the ultimate for an aerospace engineer, the Space Shuttle. He was instrumental in creating “Our Commitment,” after the tragic 1986 Challenger accident. With this program he and an astronaut traveled to subcontractors’ places of business in the effort to improve quality control and safety aspects of even the smallest parts that could affect the very lives of astronauts.

In retirement, he often gave a speech entitled “From Pioneer to Dinosaur,” where he recalled the initial excitement of young engineers in the early and strongly supported years of space exploration to the time when computers became the focus. He was happy to turn the reins over to younger computer age engineers for the future, his family shared.

He took an early retirement and fully enjoyed almost 30 years as an active retired former aerospace engineer, basking in the admiration of his grandchildren over his pioneering space work.

Mr. Gabel attributed his sharp mind and aging well into his 90th year with his great love of playing bridge. He played the game in Claremont, Montclair, Upland, La Verne and Rancho Cucamonga. He excelled as a bridge player, but only for fun, not for master bridge points, his family said.

He also truly loved movies and a great reason for moving after 27 years from Rancho Cucamonga to Claremont was the City of Trees’ Laemmle movie theater, which he frequented twice a week and enjoyed a special group of friends who formed a movie club. 

Mr. Gabel was also an avid baseball fan, rooting specifically for the California Angels. He spent many volunteer years with Little League in Stanton and in Anaheim. He served as a Little League district administrator in Orange County and prided himself on being a co-founder, with the Angels organization, of Little League Night at Angel Stadium. A highlight of his service was to attend the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania when a team from Orange County was in the playoffs.

He was thrilled to receive recognition of his 90th birthday on the Angel scoreboard in August, 2018. He attended spring training every March in Arizona and was proud to be the second season ticket holder when the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes came to Southern California in 1993. 

Mr. Gabel actively served his faith communities. He chaired three building fund campaigns for La Verne Heights Presbyterian and Northkirk Presbyterian churches, where he also served as an elder. He became a member of Claremont United Church of Christ 15 years ago. He especially enjoyed the ministry of serving meals at CUCC for Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program, where he formed lasting friendships with CHAP participants and cared deeply about their lives. John enjoyed the fellowship of CUCC Men’s Breakfast Group every Friday at his favorite restaurant, The Village Grille.

He loved living in Claremont, in his small Village home near Memorial Park, where he frequented Monday Night Concerts in the Park, Friday Nights Live music in the Village, the multiple Claremont restaurant choices, the Joslyn Senior Center, his Bone Builders/Balance class, his movie club and 50 years of Friday night pinochle with his closest friends. One additional passion was a fiercely competitive family fantasy football league with his sons and grandsons.

One hundred family and close friends gathered August 4 to celebrate his 90th birthday. He fell ill shortly thereafter, but he attended the party and enjoyed his life celebration with a great outpouring of love, respect and admiration for a life well lived, his family shared.

Mr. Gabel is survived by his wife of 54 years, Sandra Ashmore Gabel; his children, Myles (Maggie), John (Christie), Lea (Tony Robinson) and David/Bear (Beth); ten grandchildren and five great grandchildren. 

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on October 13 at Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 Harrison Ave., Claremont. Contributions in Mr. Gabel’s name may be made to Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program at chapclaremont.org, or by check to 830 W. Bonita Ave., Claremont, CA 91711.