Eastern honors Gilbert

By Dick Mason, The Observer October 15, 2012 02:59 pm


In recognition of late president’s contribution to university, revamped Ackerman gymnasium becomes the David E. Gilbert Center 

The sterling legacy of the late EOU President David E. Gilbert received an everlasting salute Friday evening.

The old Ackerman gym, a building dramatically transformed in the summer of 2011, was dedicated as the David E. Gilbert Center. The building, which was EOU’s interim library in 2011-12, will serve as a center for EOU and community events and activities. 

“Dave would be surprised and honored,” said Gilbert’s wife, Carolyn, who took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with her daughter, Joan.

David Gilbert served as Eastern’s president from 1982 to 1997. He started his career at Eastern in 1968 as a physics professor. Gilbert died Feb. 27 in Enterprise 2 1/2 years after suffering a serious stroke.

Eastern President Bob Davies said Gilbert’s legacy richly deserves to be recognized. 

“This honors what David Gilbert meant to the region.”

Davies, in his fourth year as Eastern president, remembers how Gilbert stepped forward to assist him when he became president 2009.

“He was one of the first people who reached out to me,” Davies said.

He and Gilbert later had many discussions. Gilbert often gave his tips with his trademark self-effacing humor. 

“He would say this advice is worth exactly what you are paying for it, nothing,” Davies said.

Davies did not take these words seriously but did take to heart everything else Gilbert told him. He was struck by the wisdom of Gilbert’s words, so much so that today when he faces a difficult decision concerning EOU he thinks of the former EOU leader.

“I ask myself, ‘What would Dave do?’ Doing this will take me down the pathway that will lead me to the right decision,” Davies said.

Gilbert successfully guided Eastern during a tumultuous time in higher education, one in which the university, like it does today, sometimes had to make painful budget cuts.

Still, Gilbert was able to help Eastern become a model for small regional universities, one which forged program-sharing agreements with larger  universities. 

The agricultural degree program Eastern now offers through Oregon State University and the nursing degree program it provides through Oregon Health Science University were started with major guidance from Gilbert.

Gilbert was able to help establish such collaborative programs in part because he was not worried about the larger universities Eastern worked with dominating its campus, something which never occurred.

Carolyn Gilbert said she and her husband came across Eastern almost by accident in the late 1960s. The Gilberts were on a trip through Eastern Oregon when they rolled into La Grande for the first time.

“I said, ‘Oh, there is a college here,’ ’’ Carolyn Gilbert recalled.

David Gilbert, his curiosity piqued, soon left for what he said would be a brief visit.

About three hours later David Gilbert, then a graduate student at the University of Oregon, returned after a long conversation with Ralph Badgley, the head of Eastern’s science department.

“He told me, ‘This is where I want to teach,’ ” Carolyn Gilbert said.

Gilbert was hired as a science professor a short time later.

The building now known as the David E. Gilbert Center was built in the mid-1930s. It served as the site of the Eastern basketball games until the late 1950s when Quinn Coliseum was built. The building was in declining condition and rarely used when renovation of it started in mid-2011.

“This building was dark, bleak and abused,” said Allan Osborne, of Hennebery Eddy Architects of Portland, the firm that did the design work for the renovation project.

The building was remodeled 1 1/2 years ago for the immediate purpose of converting it into a temporary library for 2011-12 while Pierce Library was remodeled.

The transformation was thorough and striking. A big part of the project involved the removal and replacement of its floor and the framing for it.

“We were down to dirt (during the renovation project),” said David Lageson, director of facilities and planning at EOU. 

Major work also involved the installation of a new heating and cooling system, a new lighting system, two handicapped accessible restrooms and much more. 

“I’ve seen space renovations before at Eastern, but this is far and away the best one that has ever been done,” said Greg Monahan, who retired in June as an EOU history professor and now lives in Portland. 

Osborne praised Eastern for deciding to transform the old gym rather than renting a building in the community to serve as a temporary library. He deemed it a wise use of resources, allowing the university to invest in the future of one of its buildings.

The project cost $400,000, half of which came from the funds EOU received from the state for the renovation of its library. The other half came from EOU’s maintenance fund.

Davies said the renovation would not have been possible without major help from State Representative Greg Smith, R-Heppner. Davies credits Smith with playing a critical role in helping EOU get the $8 million it needed for the Pierce Library renovation project. The money was raised through the sale of state bonds.

The renovation work was done by Fortis Construction of Portland. Rob Fallow of Fortis Construction said Friday that Lageson deserves a lot of credit for providing the vision and leadership needed to make this project a reality.

The David E. Gilbert Center project is not quite complete. Landscaping work will be done later to create a courtyard on its south side, and doors will be added on the west side that will open into the Dick Stenard Memorial Garden.