By: Ahmad Graves-El
John H. Gibbs was one of the original CCC English professors.
Another cherished pillar of the Cumberland County College (CCC) community has departed this earthly plane to sail on to smoother seas. Nearly 16 months after the sudden passing of his dear friend and educational cohort, John Adair, the revered and highly-respected retired CCC professor, John H. Gibbs, passed away on April 27 at 82 years of age.
Gibbs was one of the original English professors employed by CCC, which opened in 1966, and was commemorated, along with Adair, for reaching the historic milestone of teaching 50 years at the school.
Throughout the CCC community, many adjectives have been used to describe the venerable professor for the person he was, and for how he conducted his classes—intelligent, kind-hearted, esteemed, tough, caring, hilarious, and engaging among a plethora of others.
“John Gibbs was an amazing professor who motivated and inspired students through stimulating class discussions,” Sharon Kewish, retired professor of CCC, recalls. “He was a man of great intellect and integrity, treating his students as well as others with dignity, honesty, and understanding.”
“He was such a character,” says Georgia Salvaryn, 2016 graduate of CCC, who is now a part-time ESL tutor at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon. “He always had a great sense of humor and knew how to engage the class.”
According to his obituary, Gibbs was born in Camden, NJ, in 1936, and graduated from Hamilton High School in 1954. He graduated from Trenton State College, now known as The College of New Jersey in 1959, with a bachelor’s degree in science. He received his master of arts degree from the University of Wyoming in 1966.
Gibbs appeared to always have the heart of a pioneer when as a student at Trenton State College he attended the University of Saskatchewan for a year as the Canadian school’s first-ever exchange student.
Gibbs was quite the nomad in the early stages of his professional career. In the early 1960s, he taught at a couple of New Jersey high schools then worked at Crowell-Collier Publishing Company in New York, where he began as a writer, then became an assistant editor of their encyclopedia for young people.
After graduating from the University of Wyoming, he taught at Elmira College in New York. During a 2016 interview with Mickey Brandt, journalist and contributor emeritus with The Grapevine at the time, Gibbs candidly expressed his thoughts that he felt confined at the school.
“It was an edifying year, but I’ve got to be honest—Elmira at the time was a college for young ladies exclusively, it’s now co-ed, and almost all the young ladies were between 18 and 25,” Gibbs recalled in the interview. “They usually were all upper middle class and very well educated to begin with. But what I discovered was I was teaching—and when I teach there’s a lot of discussion in my classes—but I was the only guy in the class and they all saw life pretty much the same way. It was restrictive.”
Thankfully for the Cumberland County community, a good friend of his informed him that there was an opening at CCC and in Gibbs’ words, “I’ve been here ever since.”
As CCC often does with people who teach, take classes, or visit, the school left quite a mark on Gibbs.
“My first impression was … this will do for a couple years, but I’m going to move on,” Gibbs told Brandt. “But, I’ve got to admit. That within … three or four years … I wrote the first self study for Middle States for the college. So, I became familiar with the college and with the community, more so, and it changed my attitude. I liked it anyway, but it made me much more positive about this place.
“ … [S]ome people have this idea that community colleges are not like real colleges—they’re a continuation of high school. That’s baloney,” Gibbs said to Brandt. “What I learned very quickly was the quality of students we had, I thought and still think, was exceptional.”
The professor’s love and admiration for his students, his co-workers, his profession, and the area in general was genuine and unconditional.
“No professor was more dedicated to the students, the mission, and the institution of Cumberland County College,” says Richard Curcio, associate professor of history at CCC. “He served our students (and the people of Cumberland County) with devotion for more than 50 years. He personified the best values of Cumberland County College.”
“John was rigorous in his scholarship and staunch in support of the college,” says Patti Schmid, head librarian, CCC. “He was tough and believed in the students.”
Although his classes were considered demanding by a multitude of students, [it is said that he taught more than10,000 students during his illustrious career], many were aware that Gibbs had their best interests at heart. And because of that, he left an indelible impression on many of their lives.
“As a professor, he was always clear with what he expected of us,” says Courtney Saul, 2016 graduate of CCC and freelance graphic designer, who took Gibbs’ English 102 class. “Some students might have labeled him as being one of the more ‘tough’ English professors, but I believe he just wanted to push us all to be the best we could be.”
“[Professor] Gibbs and his courses definitely made an impact in my life,” says Carey Walden, 2011 graduate of CCC and social studies teacher at Ambassador Christian Academy, who took multiple classes with Gibbs, including English Composition 101 and poetry. “He influenced my voice as a writer, my performances as an actress, and my perspective as a teacher.”
Another cool aspect of Gibbs’ life: He was not only an exceptional professor, colleague, and friend, but he was an accomplished thespian, as well.
“John Gibbs loved to attend theater, but he was also a very good actor,” says Curcio, who was mentored by Gibbs, and was his friend and colleague for 30 years. “I acted with him in Our Town in 2000 at CCC, directed by our friend Walt Johnson. John played a principal role in Bus Stop, which I directed at CCC in 2001. In that play, he played an English professor (but not a nice one like he was in real life!).
Although Gibbs will no longer grace the stage or the classrooms at CCC, the memories of this endearing and distinguished gentleman will be etched eternally in the minds of those who had the pleasure of knowing him.
“John was known for striding through campus in his long black belted coat and black cap,” recalls Schmid, who was a friend and colleague of Gibbs for 26 years. “Whether from the wind or the tempo of his stride, his coat tails always flapped briskly.”
“Even though English isn’t my profession, he made more of an impression on me than any other general education professor I had during my time at [CCC],” Saul says. “I will always remember all of his jokes he told. I appreciate all he has done, not only for me, but for CCC.”
“Cumberland County College was the focus of John’s life, as it has been for many of us,” says Kewish, who was a friend and colleague of the professor for 48 years. “ … [H]e wanted the best for his students and for the larger community. John will be greatly missed.”
“He was a picture of wit, strength, dignity, honesty, and was an invaluable mentor to so many,” says Walden. “His memory will live on, there’s no question about that.”
In life, change is inevitable, and as Cumberland County College enters a new phase in its existence with the impending merger with Rowan College at Gloucester County many changes are rising upon the horizon. However, the positive impact Professor Gibbs had on the school after more than 50 years of service will always remain intact.
“John Gibbs leaves an enormous legacy (and a huge hole) at Cumberland County College,” Curcio says. “[He] is irreplaceable. His passing, I believe, marks the end of an era at Cumberland County College.”