DEMA 2023: The tech community’s farewell party for Bret Gilliam

DEMA 2023: The tech community’s farewell party for Bret Gilliam

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Fair winds and following seas, Bret Gilliam—The technical diving community celebrates his life and contributions.

Bret Gilliam was a larger-than-life personality—dare we say, character—in the dive industry. Over a 50-year career, he was involved with several dive-industry firsts, holding a number of influential postings, including serving on the boards of NAUI and IANTD, as well as CEO of TDI. But he was most known for being a co-founder of what would become the largest technical diver training agency in the world, TDI.

Bret was an idea guy, skilled at removing obstacles and even more skilled at finding the right team to get things done. His team building resulted in a global community of friends, with cutting edge knowledge in dive physiology, technology, and training development, who were, in the early days, the out-of-the-box thinkers making waves in our industry. 

It is perhaps no coincidence that TDI was formed just a year after DEMA took the unprecedented step of prohibiting nitrox production gear from being displayed at the show. Bret was no doubt a controversial character, but the turnout at his celebration of life demonstrated his influence on our industry in general, the technical industry, more specifically, and the dynamic community that built itself around that hub.

The Tin Roof on Bourbon Street, New Orleans. Photo by Peter Symes

Bourbon Street

So, where do you have a celebration of life for a figure larger than life? Just off the legendary Bourbon Street in New Orleans is perhaps as good as it gets. Over the decades, much dive business has been conducted in the convention center as well as the numerous bars of this legendary party city. In fact, New Orleans was the location of the DEMA Show the year that TDI was fully formed, in 1994. It would also be the location that formally launched SDI in 1999, and where ERDI, the public safety segment of ITI, was formulated in the same year. So, the Tin Roof on Bourbon Street was a very appropriate location to celebrate the life of one of the founders and a luminary of SDI/TDI/ERDI. 

Coupled with TDI’s traditional DEMA Tech Party, the rooms were standing room only, filled with tech divers, “wanna-be” tech divers, and several of Bret’s friends and acquaintances from around the globe. A former magazine partner of Bret’s, Fred Garth, delivered a eulogy that caught the essence of Bret’s impact on many of us and generated the only moments of semi-silence in the room. Ending the eulogy, with a raised glass to get the party restarted, was his longtime friend and folk music legend Jonathan Edwards, who played a few songs for the crowd.

Live music at the celebration of life event for Bret Gilliam. Photo by Peter Symes

Tall tales

People who had known Bret personally were given a VIP arm band, providing nearly unlimited drinks, albeit on condition that they would share stories with anyone who asked about Bret—and many tall tales were certainly told. Who knows, some of them were perhaps even true. 

Gathering to imbibe and tell the tales of dead divers, whom we knew, was almost a rite of passage in the early days of technical diving. Following in that tradition, the celebration of life was not a somber affair, but a typical event for this industry segment—with too much alcohol, larger-than-life sea stories and some pleasant reflections on Bret’s life. Friends, who had not seen each other in years, reconnected again—in many cases, solely by Bret’s celebration of life. Bret loved a party, and TDI gave him the send-off he would have wanted. 

His passing, at what we hope is the end of a tough couple of years for the tech training community, also marks the passing of an era. In the past two years, we have lost notable people in the field, including Tom Mount, Joe Odom and Bret Gilliam. Somewhere, they are sitting (probably with glasses of red wine), looking down and asking, “OK, what’s next?” The torch has been passed, but let us hope it has not been dropped, because there is still much intrepid exploration and technical development to be done. ■


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