With Gibson’s upcoming retirement, the School of Communications says goodbye to the university’s first full-time communications professor and a key figure in the development of the communications program.
Gerald Gibson calls them “star flashes.”
They are the fleeting sparks the assistant professor of communications sees when he realizes he’s doing something for the last time.
One ignited before the spring semester even started, when he put the finishing touches on his last syllabus. After he voted in a faculty meeting for the final time, he saw another. When he boxes up classroom exemplars for the recycling bin, they appear again and again. He has – or rather had – a filing cabinet full of brochure and ad designs.
Gibson, Elon’s longest-serving communications professor, announced last fall that he’ll conclude 36 years of service to the university and the communications program at the end of the 2017-18 academic year.
This semester is his farewell tour to a program he helped build, sometimes when there was nothing to even build with. More on that later. Remarkably, Gibson will be the first communications faculty member to retire since the School of Communications’ founding in 2000.
“I find myself, and this is somewhat embarrassing, trying to memorize things,” Gibson said during a February interview in his McEwen office. “I’m trying to make these little memories. What does this hall look like? What does it sound like in this space? There is an increasing awareness that I’m doing things for the last time. When I return to campus next year, I won’t be faculty anymore. So, I’m trying to remember everything.
“I’m not counting down the days, but I’m certainly aware of it,” he reasoned.
There’s a real irony in Gibson, whom colleagues note remembers everything, trying to make memories in a place he’s spent most of his adult life. Try this parlor game. Walk a hallway with Gibson and casually mention an alumnus or alumna. He can often recite their career path in chronological order.
Lecturer Staci Saltz ’97, who has spent 16 years on faculty with him, compared Gibson to Wikipedia, noting her colleague has countless stories and most of them are, in fact, true.
“He truly cares about the history of Elon and everything we’ve been through to get to where we are,” she said. “His brain is like a database, listing all the people who have been involved in that process – the alumni, the faculty, the students. When he walks out those doors, that database that he carries with him of people and stories – 36 years’ worth of stories – leaves, too. We won’t be able to replace him.”
In many ways, Gibson is the historical tie to a different Elon, one where the study of communications wasn’t so much a program but a few electives in the English major.
One year at a time
In summer 1979, Elon’s Department of Literature, Languages and Communications had a professor going on sabbatical and the need for someone to fill a one-year appointment.
At that time, Gibson, with professional experience in radio and television, was wrapping up his graduate program at UNC-Greensboro. He landed the job without much of a formal interview. In fact, Gibson recalls he didn’t even conduct a teaching presentation. His expectations that the role would grow into something permanent were low. How low? As he worked in the absent professor’s office, Gibson left his predecessor’s files, books and markers largely in place.
The department consisted of two English professors, Mary Ellen Priestley and Anne Ponder, and Gibson, who taught broadcast journalism, public speaking and “whatever the university asked,” he said.
The professor on sabbatical never returned and Gibson settled in.
His first major contribution to Elon came as adviser to WSOE-FM, the student-run radio station, where he oversaw the transition to 500 watts and the construction of new office spaces and additional studios. Associate Dean Don Grady, who has known Gibson since their days together as undergraduates at N.C. State University, calls Gibson’s efforts to raise the profile of WSOE “his most important work early on.”
Gibson helped guide the station through the FCC filing to increase its frequency, as well as the construction of studios in Harper Center and the 80-foot tower that stood beside it. (Harper Center was located where the Global Neighborhood stands today.)
“Gerald worked closely with students to construct that facility for WSOE,” Grady said. “They didn’t have any money for equipment or building supplies and that sort of stuff. He helped physically build the rooms in that facility.”
Bill Zint ’79, WSOE’s first manager, said Gibson’s impact was felt the moment he stepped into the student organization. The new adviser pushed students to focus on growth, not mistakes.
“He showed a love and a passion for the students and our mission,” Zint said. “He instilled a leadership culture of planning and setting goals. Gerald taught the staff of WSOE that the secret to success comes by building constant forward momentum. In maintaining momentum in growth, it is OK to make mistakes as long as you learn and improve on them.”
When Assistant Professor Ray Johnson arrived in 1984, he teamed with Gibson to co-teach Elon’s first television class – despite the university not having an actual studio. “We used just a regular classroom on the second floor of Mooney Building,” recalled Johnson. “I can picture drawing the equipment on the blackboard, telling students: ‘If we had a studio camera, this is what it would look like.’”
Eventually, the duo set up a space resembling a studio on the first floor of Mooney, utilizing a room student teachers used to record their lessons. The faculty members and students recorded their broadcasts on the room’s two black-and-white security cameras.
“Often, Gerald and I will walk into Williams Studio today and it will seem surreal to us,” laughed Johnson, picturing the program’s beginnings.
Gibson’s efforts to improve the quality of Elon’s communications curriculum weren’t limited to campus. In 1985, he led the first study abroad trip for communications students, taking a group to London.
Richmond called, then Elon called back
What many people don’t realize is Gibson’s tenure at Elon hasn’t been continuous.
In 1985, his wife, Peggy, had what Gibson called “an incredible career opportunity,” so they pulled up stakes and headed to Richmond. On his way out, Gibson recommended that Elon consider Grady for his open position, a job he landed.
For three years, Gibson worked at advertising and public relations agencies in Virginia. While he said he’s “glad of the experiences we had in Richmond,” the couple’s extended family necessitated a return home.
As luck would have it, Gibson reached out to his former colleagues to ask about potential openings in the area when he discovered that Elon was again hiring. This time the formal interview process included a classroom presentation for the faculty. Memorably, Gibson recalled administrators asking him, “We already have a Don Grady. Tell me how you’re not Don Grady.”
Fortunately, his professional toolbox was more robust after Richmond and he got the position, returning to teach public relations, organizational communications, public speaking and other non-technical courses, he said.
“When Gerald came back, he recreated himself to contribute to the program in a different way,” Grady said. “He had moved from broadcasting to what is now called strategic communications. He brought back a level of experience to support our then-new program called corporate communications. We did a national search for the position and we interviewed a group of people, and he was the best candidate.”
Gibson spent the next three decades leaving his handprints all over the communications program – and the university at large.
According to Lela Faye Rich, a long-serving academic adviser at Elon, Gibson was one of the “core group” of faculty members who designed Elon 101, the university’s seminar for first-year students. He led the first communications courses to New York as well as Los Angeles. He also helped set up Elon’s first Mac lab in the 1990s. He spent much of that same decade serving as the program’s internship coordinator.
He was even the departmental liaison for the renovation of McEwen Communications Building, preparing for the initial opening of the School of Communications. It was undoubtedly a thrill for the short-lived N.C. State architecture major to meet weekly with engineers and contractors to discuss the construction.
This list of accomplishments doesn’t even touch on his regular involvement in the school’s curriculum and planning process.
“He has been around a long time and has been involved in a variety of capacities, helping guide the evolution of the Department of Communications and the School of Communications,” Grady said. “From the very early days of his time here at Elon, he has been committed to the idea of helping students succeed and helping this program succeed.”
Not surprising for those who know him, Gibson deflected credit for the program’s rise in size and stature.
“You have to remember that there weren’t many of us, so you do what you can and what you have to,” he said. “To be honest, I’ve always just wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to work with students. And I have always been grateful for the opportunities that Elon has given me.”
The historian of Elon’s communications program
Today, Gibson’s office is a condensed archive of what he’s spent three-plus decades collecting. The summer 2016 renovation of McEwen necessitated that he trim down his number of mementos, but his office bookcases are still a time capsule of Elon’s past.
On a recent morning, Gibson uncovered a documentary that Stephen Herbster ’93 filmed on Elon’s 1992 football program. Twenty-five years later, Herbster is the manager of creative services for the Carolina Panthers.
A short time later, the professor located an old ESTV video and a note that read, “Gibson, please look at this. Let us know what you think of how the show went.” The 20-year-old message is signed J&J Sports. That’s short for Jason Dennis ’98, a news anchor in Columbus, Georgia, and Jeff Haniewich ’98, a chief meteorologist at a Roanoke, Virginia, news station.
Besides these treasures, Gibson’s office houses obsolete digital cameras, an old portable transistor radio, radio and speech therapy books, and shelves of projects and works created by past students. One notebook has test scripts dating back to 1991.
“If you pick any one of these things up, you see names,” Gibson said. More accurately, the longtime professor sees people and the relationships he’s built with them.
Ask anyone to describe Gibson and the adjective they’ll likely use is “talkative.” If they’re being polite, they’ll substitute in “conversational.” But his personable nature has produced countless friendships, both with students as well as faculty members.
Doug Finberg ’94, a former MGM executive and current vice president for a U.S.-based global content association, believes Gibson’s popularity as an instructor comes from his personal touch.
“The material was only a piece of what you gained through Gerald’s courses,” Finberg said. “Gerald didn’t just teach or guide his students through the course work, he gave of himself through his personal investment in each one of us as individuals.”
Despite nearly a quarter-century since sharing a classroom, Finberg and Gibson trade messages a few times a year. “Some relationships transcend the professor/student dynamic as we mature over time,” Finberg reasoned.
To Kelly McKeone ’93, Gibson embodies what she calls the “Elon difference,” noting her former professor’s thoughtfulness, intellect and passion for teaching. He impacted her and others by genuinely caring for them, staying long hours and inviting them to his home. Even Gibson’s “bad jokes” – McKeone’s words – helped make a difference in her studies.
“For me, I felt a personal investment [from Gerald] and genuine care for my success as a student and as a professional that I still feel to this day,” said McKeone, now a marketing executive for North America’s largest floral service provider.
Aurora Albi-Mercier ’16, who didn’t even have Gibson as a professor, echoed that sentiment.
“What I believe makes Gerald Gibson truly unique is his ability to share his life story and passions in a way that helps you discover your own,” the recent graduate said. “He encouraged me to apply for a leadership position at school which ended up changing not only my journey at Elon, but helped guide me toward the career and life I have today. I know I wouldn’t be where I am without his friendship and support, and for that I will be forever grateful.”
Two years removed from graduation, Albi-Mercier is an assistant production coordinator at CBS in Los Angeles and recently worked on the network’s “Big Brother” series.
Having spent three decades watching Gibson interact with students, Johnson isn’t surprised by the admiration students and graduates have for his colleague.
“Let me put it this way, if I knew a student’s name, Gerald knew what their parents’ names were,” Johnson said.
A few weeks ago, Johnson recalled an Elon graduate unexpectedly visited and he couldn’t remember him. Gibson wasn’t around but, as soon as he was, Johnson approached to get the details on the former student. Certainly Gibson would remember the alumnus.
“It’s almost like our students never leave his mind,” Johnson said. “They stay with him.”
That personal touch has extended to coworkers as well, with Johnson and Saltz both acknowledging how Gibson has impacted their careers and personal lives.
“If something interesting happens to me, my first thought is to share it with him,” Johnson said. “I can share with him the most personal things – both the ups and downs in my life.”
Saltz called Gibson “the cornerstone” of her career, an individual she can always count on for support.
“When I think of Elon, I think of Gerald,” she said.
The magnetic pull of Elon
Gibson spent his formative years in Rutherford County, a rural area hiding in the quietness between Asheville and Charlotte. His evenings consisted largely of AM radio, listening to WABC in New York, WCFL in Chicago and WOWO from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“I still remember thinking how magical those places were – those exotic places,” he laughed.
As a youngster, Gibson played the piano and spent his Saturday nights “pickin’ and grinnin’” on his guitar on the front porch with extended family. “Music became a big part of my life,” he said. He dreamed of working in radio, but his western Carolina drawl got in the way. Years later, through speech therapy classes and extensive practice, Gibson’s accent eventually faded away.
In high school, he played in a band and eventually joined the debate club. As a senior, he rose to club president, where a sophomore, Peggy, caught his eye. On Jan. 20, 1968, they had their first date – with her father’s blessing. They got married five years later.
The 50th anniversary of that date came this year, but Gibson’s Winter Term class schedule got in the way of any real celebration. The couple looks forward to their calendars opening up soon. And Peggy Gibson actually beat her husband to the punch, retiring in late January.
When the semester concludes, the couple foresees cross-country trips in their future, visiting their son in Texas and reconnecting with friends, many of them former Elon students. Gibson hopes to reunite with his high school bandmates, as well as play some charity concerts with a few of his Burlington-area friends. They aren’t looking for stardom or income, just an excuse to play music.
In the fall, near the start of the semester, Gibson expects he will be far away from campus.
“I don’t know what my plans are yet, but I won’t be here,” he said. “I want to be away from the magnetic pull of this place.” As the words came from his mouth, Gibson’s clinched hand rested over his heart.
For now, there are classes to teach, leading up to his last final exam on May 11. There will be memories to make until then.