On the day I met him, back in 1989, he saw himself retiring, moving behind the scenes at Ringling Bros., and that's essentially what he did. He performed occasionally, last stepping into the center ring for a show in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Sept. 27, 1998, when he filled in for his son, Mark Oliver.
Last July, Gebel-Williams underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. His wife, Sigrid, said he realized something was wrong when he lost his peripheral vision during a training session with two tigers. He felt dizzy and weak and walked into one of them.
He died at his Venice, Fla., home of cancer Thursday. He was 66.
It's hard to make sense of life and death. A good obituary is hard to find, even for someone who brought so much joy. I think once again to the very first words Gunther Gebel-Williams ever said to me, when he was giving me that lesson in humility. Those seem to sum it up best: "I don't think you need to ask any questions … You've had your lesson in circus life."
May Gunther Gebel-Williams rest in peace.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.