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"CLI" 2003 Obituary


CLINTON o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-11-26 published
A scholar and a gentle man
'Fine example of a great Canadian' who founded Ontario's Brock University was once private secretary to prime minister Mackenzie KING
By Ron CSILLAG, Special to The Globe and Mail Wednesday, November 26, 2003 - Page R9
In an almost Zen-like fashion, James GIBSON knew the value of not acting. In the late 1960s, when a group of student radicals seized part of Brock University, hoping to be dragged away kicking and screaming, Dr. GIBSON, who had helped found the institution a few years earlier, reacted in a way no other university president did when faced with the same problem: He did nothing. The protesters, he reasoned, may have had legitimate grievances, but their unseemly actions offended his firm sense of propriety. In time, the students simply went away.
It was an effective, though uncharacteristic, action for a man who embodied Brock's Latin motto: "Surgite," freely translated as "push on." That he did, through some 65 rich years of advancing higher education and in public service, most notably as a private secretary to former prime minister Mackenzie KING, whose penchant for soothsaying and assorted eccentricities Dr. GIBSON kept mainly to himself until later in life.
Just five days before his death in Ottawa on October 23 at the age of 91, Dr. GIBSON was doing what he loved: Watching a new group of graduates receive their diplomas at the fall convocation of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, the school he had launched as founding president in 1963.
At a recent memorial service at Brock, David ATKINSON, the university's president and vice-chancellor, recalled a man whose attributes a strong moral fibre, clarity of thought and a general uprightness, all tempered by a warm and gentle touch -- harkened to a quaint, bygone era. "It's unlikely we will meet anyone like him again," Dr. ATKINSON said.
In the House of Commons on October 27, Dr. GIBSON was praised by St. Catharines Liberal member of parliament Walt LASTEWKA as "a fine example of a great Canadian."
Dr. GIBSON, whose knowledge of Canadian history and government were legend, was in the news this past summer as the oldest of over 1,000 Rhodes Scholars who flew to England for a five-day bash honouring the centenary of the trust. With his brother William, also a Rhodes Scholar, Dr. GIBSON dedicated a re-leaded stained-glass window at the chapel of Oxford's New College.
A normally discreet man, he had sharp words for former prime minister Brian MULRONEY, not an Oxford graduate, who surprised guests at the alumni dinner -- and raised a few eyebrows -- when he took a seat on the podium alongside Oxonians Bill CLINTON and Tony BLAIR, and guest Nelson MANDELA. Many alumni, Dr. GIBSON included, felt that Mr. MULRONEY, who had been invited by The Independent newspaper chain, had no business being there. Though upset, Dr. GIBSON retained his dignity, saying simply, "I was offended."
James Alexander GIBSON was born in Ottawa, in 1912, to Canadian-born parents of Irish-Scottish stock with strong Methodist and Quaker leanings. Raised in Victoria, he graduated with a B.A. in history from the University of British Columbia at age 18. Less than a year later, he was one of the youngest boys at Oxford.
"That was the real dividing line in my life," he told The Globe and Mail last July. "The economic depression was beginning to take over and some of the graduates in my year at University of British Columbia ended up digging ditches, but I had a guaranteed income for three years."
The annual stipend was only £400 but it enabled Dr. GIBSON to live comfortably and travel to the rest of Europe when he wasn't studying modern history, debating in the Oxford Union Society and keeping wicket for the New College cricket squad, the Nomads.
Back in Ottawa and armed with a doctorate in history, he joined the Department of External Affairs. On his second day on the job, he was whisked to the prime minister's office for a six-month secondment that lasted nine years. Mr. KING, who was also External Affairs minister, blocked Dr. GIBSON's promotions to postings abroad three times because "he told me I stopped him getting into trouble."
The prime minister was a notorious taskmaster, calling on his assistant to work most evenings and weekends to draft letters and speeches. Throughout, "Dad never complained about anything," said his daughter Julia MATTHEWS. " But as he got older, he loosened up a little."
According to his daughter, he came to describe the famously erratic leader as "a very grumpy man and a very lonely man, insensitive, and quite damaging to work for."
Ultimately, it occurred to the clan that perhaps the unmarried prime minister was simply jealous of Dr. GIBSON's status as a beloved family man and father of three children. "Whenever we went on a family holiday, Dad always got called back," remembered Ms. MATTHEWS.
But a high point came in the spring of 1945, when Dr. GIBSON accompanied Mr. KING and 380 other delegates to San Francisco and the founding of the United Nations. During the historic two-month conference, Dr. GIBSON got personal glimpses of such leaders as the Soviet Union's Andrei GROMYKO and Britain's Anthony EDEN, but the task at hand, he later recalled, was to keep the Canadian prime minister "on the rails."
Fearing he would never advance in the public service, Dr. GIBSON resigned in 1947 and took a teaching post at Ottawa's Carleton University, where he later served as the first dean of arts and science and deputy to the president. By the early 1960s, he was courted by a group of community leaders in the Niagara peninsula to establish Brock University. When he began as founding president, the school had seven faculty (known as "the magnificent seven"), 29 students and a "library" consisting of a shelf of books. Today, it boasts more than 15,000 students and 47,000 alumni.
His first order of business at Brock was the creation of a library.
Now housed in the campus's Schmon Tower, it has become something of a landmark on the Niagara Escarpment. Dr. GIBSON, fondly known by faculty as "James A.," remained as Brock's president until 1974. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1992, and the library was named after him in 1996.
He was also a leading figure in the Unitarian faith, serving for a time as chaplain of the Unitarian Congregation of Niagara.
Asked what dinner-table conversation was like at home, Ms. MATTHEWS sighed good-naturedly. "Oh, God. There was a lot of current events. He had all the answers. He was always lecturing, but he could be really charming." Even after his vision started to fail, he travelled, read and wrote. "He never felt old."
After moving from his beloved St. Catharines to an Ottawa retirement home, Dr. GIBSON lectured residents on "governors-general I have known."
Dr. GIBSON was predeceased by his wife of 57 years, Caroline (née STEIN,) and leaves three children, seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, his brother, and a sister, Isobel SEARLS.
His final days were summed up poetically by Josephine MEEKER, a former professor at Brock. After attending the university's convocation last month, Dr. GIBSON "went for a long walk, returned to his residence, went into the lounge area, took off his coat and folded it up, put it on the back of his chair, sat down, folded his hands in his lap, closed his eyes, and died."

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