Helen S. Gibson, 92, pianist, Washington College's first lady

July 12, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Helen S. Gibson, a classical pianist and former first lady of Washington College who worked tirelessly in support of the arts, died of pneumonia Wednesday at Potomac Center in Alexandria, Va. The former longtime Chestertown resident was 92.

Born Helen Schaefer in Gary, Ind., and raised in Pomeroy, Ohio, she began playing the piano as a child. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1933 in music from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and a master's degree in the discipline in 1935 from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

"After graduation, she had her own show playing the piano on a Cincinnati radio station," said her daughter, Jillian Clark Gibson of Alexandria.

While attending the conservatory, she met Daniel Z. Gibson, an English professor and doctoral candidate, whom she married in 1936.

Dr. Gibson held teaching assignments at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and was a dean at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., before moving to Chestertown in 1950 to become president of Washington College.

While her husband presided over expansion of the college's facilities and endowment during his 20-year tenure as president, Mrs. Gibson turned her attention to cultural matters.

In 1951, she helped establish the Washington College Concert Series - now in its 54th season - which brings prominent classical musicians to the college.

The genesis for the concert series began in Mrs. Gibson's living room in Hynson-Ringgold House, the official residence of the college president, when she held a musicale with Robert Forney, a violinist, and Nathan Smith, who played mandolin.

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

Out of those Monday night musicales came the idea for a concert series that is now an annual event at the Tawes Theatre in the Daniel Z. Gibson Performing Arts Center on the college's Chestertown campus.

In 1969, Mrs. Gibson was the accompanist for the college's choral group, which toured Europe for three weeks.

"I heard her play many times, and Helen was a very fine musician who liked music out of the Romantic period. She was very knowledgeable and broadly educated, and that came through," said Garry Clarke, professor of music. "She was also a wonderful entertainer and was an old-fashioned hostess in every sense of the word."

In addition to preparing food for faculty parties, Mrs. Gibson was equally adept at laying brick when she created a walk behind the president's house.

In a tribute to Mrs. Gibson on her 90th birthday, John S. Toll, Washington College president, extolled her "passion for music, her energy and her vision" that "have helped shape the creative culture that distinguishes our campus and Chestertown today."

Mrs. Gibson also helped found the Women's League of Washington College, which provides scholarships for students and materials for the Miller Library. She was also involved in creating the campus arboretum that was dedicated in 1998.

After her husband's death in 1984, Mrs. Gibson remained active in the cultural life of the college and community. She enjoyed bird watching, swimming, yoga and travel.

"She had a list of the music she wanted played at her memorial service which was actually performed at her 90th birthday celebration, which in essence became what she called a `living memorial service,' so there will be no additional services," her daughter said.

She was a communicant of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Chestertown.

Other survivors include a son, Daniel Douglas Gibson of Ester, Alaska; and two grandchildren. Another daughter, Mary Gibson Swander, died this year.

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