Meet Your Neighbor: Goodsell has built roads, good path for family

Jeff Birchfield • Dec 30, 2018 at 11:46 PM

Solid Midwestern values brought Bob Goodsell through a one-year tour of Vietnam back home to Nebraska. Living in East Tennessee for the past three decades, he has become a true Southern gentleman.

Goodsell, a 74 year-old Johnson City resident, was born in San Diego where his father helped build DC-10 aircraft. When he was 2, the family moved back home to central Nebraska. Goodsell grew up in Burwell, literally the geographical center of Nebraska, where the family raised corn, alfalfa, and wheat and milked cows.

They farmed until he was a junior in high school, when they moved 17 miles away to Ord when his parents had a chance to buy the local bowling alley, and his family also started a construction business. Newly married and living in Nebraska, Goodsell was up for the draft when he signed up as a heavy equipment operator in the Navy Seabees program.


"I had a background in construction, helping my brother," he said. "The draft was going on and I knew I would be called upon at some point. The Navy recruiter came by and they were having a buildup program. If you knew your job, you could go in with rank.

"I needed it to make enough money to survive. I went in as an E-4, which paid more money. Being an operator in construction, all they needed to do was teach me how to march. It was a good decision since I was going to go anyway."

He went to Rhode Island for training for a six-week program that turned into two months. He and others in the Naval program were trained at Camp Pendleton, California, to make them more accurate with a rifle, when he knew for sure that he would be going to Vietnam.

His wife, Jan, had informed him that she was pregnant when he was in Rhode Island. His first day in Vietnam was Oct. 31, 1966, the day his son, Brian, was born in Ord, Nebraska. Goodsell didn't hear the news until two weeks later when the mail reached him.

Under the heavy mental strain, he often leaned on a friend who assured him all would be good.

"I had a good friend, Jerry Lavech, we called him Frenchy, and everywhere I would get orders, he would get orders, so we got really close," Goodsell said. "We just became really good friends. For him being in the same time, he took me in with the idea that it would all be OK."


Working out of Camp Tinshaw, an old French base, there was a frequent reminder this wasn't a vacation spot.

"I knew it was a year-long commitment before I would get out of there, if I got out of there," Goodsell said. "That's always in the back of your mind when you hear the bombs go off close to Danang, although it was supposed to be the second-safest place in the country."

It became even more real one night when their base got hit and he could see the tracers and muzzle flashes coming out of the bushes. Once everything cooled down, Goodsell used his dry-witted humor to reassure his fellow sailors.

He recalled, "I told my friends, 'Hey, we're going to be alright.' When they questioned why, I said, 'I saw a bullet go by with my name on it.'"

Although in construction instead of combat, many of his missions like drag lining at the Qua Viet River at night were dangerous. One evening when he was running a 70-ton crane with a large bucket on it, some of the Vietnamese got too close for comfort in their pan boat (similar to a canoe).

"I was sitting on a sandbar," he said. "The pans would get closer and close and you would tell them to DD, which meant to get out of there. I was running the drag line one night and they wouldn't move over. I finally had enough.

"They were getting too close where they could throw a magnetic bomb to us that would hit the barge. I knew this was it. We were dumping clear behind them with the bucket. When I come around to drag the cable out, which let the bucket way out, I was coming right at them. I could have killed them, but I dropped the bucket to make a big ole' wave, which covered their sampan. All you could see next was them pitching water. They didn't come close anymore."

After nine months, he finally got to go on leave to Hawaii where he saw Jan. It was an emotional Veterans Day 1967 when he saw his son, Brian, now 1 year old, for the first time.


After his Navy stint was over, Goodsell returned to the family construction business. He worked 13 years, building roads in Nebraska. When his father got sick with cancer, Goodsell's son and daughter stepped in to help him finish building a canal.

"My son jumped on the 627 (wheel tractor/scraper) and my daughter was the grade checker," he said. "They both did tremendous jobs. Once I finished the canal, we sold out and I started working for other people."

He moved East, first getting a job with Holloway Construction building roads in Arkansas, where he and Jan lived at a nice lakefront home. They moved even farther east for the Interstate 26 expansion project from Unicoi County to Asheville. Goodsell remembers that his machine turned over the first scoop of dirt coming out of Erwin. He also remembers how tedious the work was.

"It's a lot more of challenge building roads in Tennessee compared to Nebraska," he said. "I first saw that in Arkansas where you're digging through rocks and mud across a mountain. You can probably build 12 miles of Nebraska road to build one mile here. It was a real challenge to go through River Hill in Erwin."

He and Brian worked for Summers-Taylor before venturing off to their own business. Goodsell remained with the company until he retired. He later worked part-time at Buffalo Valley Golf Course, where he had a house across from the course's No. 3 and No. 5 greens.


It was natural that Goodsell would work at a sports facility since family has a long history in athletics.

His father was a baseball pitcher who played in the White Sox organization before a shoulder injury ended his career. An older brother, Dick, was a 6-foot-4, left-handed pitcher who played with the Yankees organization. His career ended once he tore the ligaments in his hand where he couldn't throw a curveball.

"I still have articles where my dad pitched back-to-back doubleheaders in the same night for North Platte, Nebraska," Goodsell said. "They read, 'Mr. Perfect Control does it again.' I pitched, my older brother pitched, but he couldn't get over how we couldn't hit the target like he could."

Goodsell played both high school basketball and baseball and that love of sports has been passed down to his children and grandchildren. His daughter, Deidre, served as a coach in basketball, soccer and volleyball, first at Science Hill and later at Tennessee High, where she is an assistant principal.

His grandsons, Dewey and Dillon Pendley, each earned All-State wrestling honors for the Vikings. His granddaughter, Sydney Goodsell, set the Elizabethton volleyball program's all-time school record for kills this season, while her sister, Shelby, was an All-State volleyball player for Tri-Cities Christian.

Beyond the spectator role, Goodsell served as president of the Mountain Empire Tennis Association, a position now held by Jan. Back and leg problems have taken Bob off the tennis courts. However, he remains active on the golf course and his name frequently shows up amongst the leaders in the local Seniors Golf League results.

"I just played with some guys at the church and since we lived at Buffalo Valley, I would go out and hit some balls," he said. "Dan Quisenberry, a friend of mine at church, invited me to come play with the Seniors Golf League. I got into it, big time. I didn't play much last year because I had to have back surgery, but I plan to play a lot this year."

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