Gibson remembered for his dedication to student learning
by Luanne Williams

A stalwart of the University's Department of Chemistry and Physics, Dr. Michael Gibson helped make Wingate students better scientists.  

J. Michael Gibson was a meticulous lab-planner and an animated teacher. Above all, perhaps, he was conscientious: He went to any length possible to make sure his students understood the chemistry concepts he taught.

Gibson died on Tuesday, Sept. 18, of a heart attack. He was 70. Despite having retired last month, he was thinking of Wingate’s students up until his death: He was due to tutor a dozen students on Wednesday evening.

“Dr. Gibson was such a kind and gentle soul with a passion that seemed to never dim,” says Todd Griffin, safety officer and lab manager for the University’s Department of Chemistry and Physics. He knew Gibson as a teacher, colleague, mentor and friend.

A member of the Class of 1997, Griffin said Gibson convinced him to change his major from biology and taught him both general chemistry and organic chemistry – teaching him better than Griffin realized at the time.

“After organic, he asked what I thought. My reply was that I doubt I will be an organic chemist,” Griffin says. “He rolled his eyes.”

Thanks to Gibson’s tutelage, Griffin was able to not only teach an organic-chemistry lab in graduate school at Indiana University but eventually become lead teaching assistant, even winning an award for his efforts.

As word spread of Gibson’s passing on Tuesday, former students shared story after story of his going out of his way to help them succeed.

“Dr. Gibson is the reason I was able to go to pharmacy school the year I was accepted,” Becca Giannetti, a 2017 graduate of the Wingate School of Pharmacy, posted on social media. “I got very sick and was in the hospital for two weeks, and he worked with me every day to catch back up.”

“Dr. Gibson wrote one of my letters of recommendation for a summer program that got me started in research,” shared Ann Raddant Cox, who graduated with a degree in biology in 2007. “He loved what he did, which made it so much more fun for the students he taught.”

‘Coffee in a beaker’

None of the comments surprised Gibson’s longtime friend and colleague James Hall, who had known him since the early 1970s when the two were in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gibson was two years older than Hall but behind him in school, having served in Air Force during the Vietnam War after completing his undergraduate degree at Belmont Abbey. The Halls and Gibsons worshipped together at Carrboro Baptist Church and kept in touch after Hall took a job in Kentucky. In 1981, Hall visited Gibson in Columbia, where he was doing his post-doctoral work at the University of South Carolina. Gibson told Hall about Wingate, which had just become a four-year college and was building its science program, and by 1982 the two were working side by side.

Hall says Gibson was conscientious – about everything from his experiments to his coffee-making.

“In the early days he would make his coffee in a beaker over a hotplate in the lab,” Hall says. “He had a precise procedure for how long to heat it, how long to let it sit and how long he had to drink it so it would still be fresh.”

That attention to detail carried over to the lab.

“He was very meticulous about experiments that he was going to have students do,” Hall says. “He would research and practice them over and over so when he wrote up the procedure, it worked. Others might have an experiment not turn out as expected, but it always worked with him.”

Over the years, Gibson involved scores of students in his research, much of which dealt with organic reactions in near-critical water using a Parr reaction vessel.

“These reactions are ‘green’ and have many benefits for both laboratory research and the environment,” explains Heather Clontz, an associate professor who often collaborated with Gibson. “Numerous Wingate students have worked on a wide variety of projects in this field and have presented their research both at regional meetings and national meetings.”

Staying as late as necessary

Clontz describes Gibson as a “masterful teacher” in the lab and classroom.

“He explained each detail to the students and allowed them to perform the reaction,” she says. “He was able to do this because he was a very skillful researcher and because of his great laboratory experience and love of chemistry.”

Clontz shadowed Gibson during her first year teaching at Wingate.

“I learned so much from him,” she says. “He was a very animated teacher and often told the students stories or analogies to go along with the material. Many of these I have called ‘classics’ and use them in my lectures and laboratory classes.”

Beyond his research and entertaining lectures, Gibson will perhaps most be remembered for his willingness to work with students outside of class to help them grasp important concepts.

“He was always doing help sessions and review sessions,” says Hall, who is establishing a chemistry scholarship fund to honor Gibson. “He was very good at it. And he didn’t mind staying late. He would work with students as long as they had questions.”

That practice didn’t end with Gibson’s final teaching semester in the spring. In fact, he was scheduled to lead a tutoring session Wednesday night.

Kristin Wharton, director of Wingate’s Academic Resource Center, will never forget Gibson’s visit to her office to sign up as a tutor. She says he told her, “I don't much like crossword puzzles, so this is how I intend to stay sharp as I get older.”

“He wanted to volunteer on his own time to inspire and share his love of chemistry with even more Wingate students,” Wharton says.

The Gibson family will receive friends today at McEwen Funeral Home from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Memorials may be made to the J. Michael Gibson Scholarship Fund. Checks, made out to Wingate University with Gibson Scholarship Fund in the note field, can be mailed to P.O. Box 159, Wingate, NC 28174. Give online by clicking on Give Now.

Sept. 21, 2018

  • Faculty Spotlight