Friday, July 8, 2005

In Memoriam: Helen Gibson, Former First Lady of Washington College

Chestertown, MD, July 8, 2005 — Helen Gibson, former First Lady of Washington College, a gifted pianist and a patron of the arts, died on July 6, 2005, at Potomac Center for Elder Care in Alexandria, Virginia. She was 92.

The daughter of Carl and Helen Schaefer, Helen Gibson was born August 27, 1912, in Gary, Indiana, and moved to Ohio at a young age. She earned her bachelor's degree in Music at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, and went on to earn her Master's degree in Music from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

It was while she was a student at the Conservatory that she met Daniel Z. Gibson, an English professor and doctoral candidate there. The couple married in 1936. After living in Charleston, South Carolina, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Dr. Gibson was English professor and then Dean at Franklin & Marshall College, the couple moved to Chestertown in 1950 when he was named president of Washington College. During the Gibson's 20 years at the College, she was a staunch advocate for the arts. The performing arts center built during their tenure was named for her husband.

As the First Lady of the College from 1950 to 1970, Gibson was instrumental in bringing a greater appreciation and support for the arts to Chestertown and to Washington College. Shortly after her arrival in Chestertown, she co-founded the Washington College Concert Series, now in its 54th season.

Nathan Smith, Washington College professor of history emeritus, recalls that the germination of the concert series occurred in the living room of the Hynson-Ringgold House, with an impromptu trio composed of Helen Gibson at piano, Robert Forney on violin, and Smith on mandolin.

"Helen Gibson sat down at the piano and sight-read a complicated piece. We were surrounded by this beautiful music. She created this oasis of high culture at Hynson-Ringgold House that I'll never forget. To walk in and be a part of it was wonderful."

After that first musical encounter, local musicians would gather every Monday night at the Hynson-Ringgold House to play chamber music. They soon decided to take their music to a broader audience, and began inviting professional musicians to perform. Mrs. Gibson later was the accompanist for the College's choral group, which in 1969 went on a three-week European tour.

"Helen Gibson's passion for music, her energy and her vision have helped to shape the creative culture that distinguishes our campus and Chestertown today," remarked former College President John Toll on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday, a milestone the Chestertown community celebrated by gathering for a piano concert in the Gibson Performing Arts Center, featuring renowned pianist Stefan Scaggiari.

Mrs. Gibson also was instrumental in the founding of the Women's League of Washington College, a community organization that today provides scholarship support for Washington College students and materials for the College's Miller Library. More recently, she was involved in the creation of the campus arboretum, dedicated in 1998.

The Gibson years at Washington College were a time of unprecedented growth and program development. As partners, Daniel and Helen Gibson accomplished much at Washington College, yet Mrs. Gibson took the initiative on many projects, from preparing food for faculty parties to laying the brick walk in the backyard of the Hynson-Ringgold House. She is remembered as an elegant and gracious hostess who entertained beautifully on a very small budget.

Following her husband's death in 1984, she remained active in the Chestertown community. In addition to her music, her books and college activities, she enjoyed birdwatching, swimming, yoga and travel.

She is survived by a son, Daniel Douglas Gibson, and daughter-in-law, Jennifer Jolis of Ester, Alaska; a daughter, Jillian Clark Gibson, of Alexandria, Virginia, and two grandchildren, Rachel Katharine Nichols and Daniel Patrick Nichols, both of San Francisco, California. Her daughter, Mary Gibson Swander, died in January 2005.

The ninetieth birthday celebration for Mrs. Gibson was one she helped plan and was, in essence, her living memorial service. Her children and grandchildren feel that no additional memorial service could do more justice to her love of family, the arts, the college and Chestertown.

Memorial contributions may be made to: The Helen Gibson Scholarship at Washington College, 300 Washington Avenue, Chestertown, Maryland 21620.

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