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A fairwell to Darby Educator, counselor and friend
BY LISA ZAHNER - COLUMNIST (Week of January 29, 2009)

Darby Gibbons, perhaps the most beloved man in Vero Beach, died peacefully at home on Jan. 23rd under hospice care after battling cancer for nearly two years.

In the same way that his grandfather demanded a hole be cut in the door of the windowless old Naval Hospital infant nursery so he could see his newborn grandson, Morris A. “Darby” Gibbons III himself carved windows of opportunity for two generations of Vero Beach young people, helping them envision their futures more clearly.

Long-time English teacher, head of College Counseling and Academic Dean at St. Edward’s Upper School, Gibbons died with wife Patti and daughter Emily at the bedside of a husband and father they described as “the best man in the whole world.”

These last moments were precious because, during the previous month, the family had to share Gibbons with throngs of admirers as he entertained — literally entertained with his stories and jokes — a parade of friends, colleagues and former students.

“We always shared him with everyone,” said Patti, his wife of 31 years.

They all wanted to see him one last time, in hopes of getting a final nugget of wisdom to carry them through, knowing he would no longer be there in his office, door always open, to invite them in and listen. Listening was what Darby Gibbons did best, and listening is what made the advice he gave so valuable.

“Darby truly represented unconditional love,” said Patti Gibbons. “He lived it and he emitted it. To gain Darby’s acceptance, there were never any terms. He loved people for who they were and he loved me for who I am.”

That love and acceptance is what made Gibbons a superbly talented educator and a gifted counselor of so many students, doing everything he could to help young people launch their higher education.

“Darby made every single kid feel like they were the only interest he had,” said David Cherry, father of Jonathan Cherry, a 2002 graduate of St. Edward’s Upper School.

Cherry, a probation officer with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, enrolled Jonathan in second grade and worked two jobs to keep his son at the exclusive private school. Was it worth it? For Cherry, absolutely, if for no other reason than the fact that his son had Darby Gibbons as his counselor.

“Darby hand-delivered Jonathan’s application to the University of Florida and, before he left to come home, he already knew that Jonathan would be accepted there. He introduced Jonathan to opportunities for scholarships and, because of everything he did, he finished four years of college without owing a penny,” Cherry said.

“Keeping Jonathan at St. Edward’s was always a struggle financially, but you always want the best for your kids. Jonathan now says he would make whatever sacrifice he would have to make to someday send his children to private school.”

Cherry’s story is one of thousands as Gibbons’ work as an educator, counselor and volunteer for 35 years brought not only hope and comfort, but useful information and pragmatic guidance to families of every possible situation and economic status.

Boston University senior Catherine Albrecht, a 2006 graduate of St. Edward’s, grew up knowing Gibbons as a friend of the family and colleague of her mother, Barklie Elliot, also an English teacher at the school.

“I’ve always known Darby, I think he was at my baby shower,” Albrecht said. “Then he was my counselor starting in my junior year and I asked him a million questions and he was consistently patient with me and wanted to do what was best for me. I used to just stop by his office, you could talk to him about anything and he was always up for a good conversation, he always made the time for everyone.”

Albrecht said she will miss Gibbons’ sense of humor and the way he treated every student like a unique person. She said he knew every student’s strengths, weaknesses and special talents and he helped them craft college applications that presented their best selves to admissions personnel.

He also guided students in applying for schools at which they would not only thrive and succeed, but where they would also be happy and grow personally.

“He knew what type of person would do well at a specific school, we went over all my options and he encouraged me to apply to reach schools, but was also very candid about my chances so I wouldn’t get my hopes up,” she said.

Even after entering Boston University, she relied on Gibbons and his advice. When she was still adjusting to the large campus and the culture of the school, Albrecht was convinced she wanted to transfer to a smaller school.

“He helped me to all my transfer applications and he didn’t have to do that, I wasn’t one of his students anymore,” she said. “I ended up staying at BU, but he helped me with all the applications anyway so then it was my choice whether or not to transfer and that meant a lot to me.”

Albrecht said her classmates who had Gibbons as a ninth-grade English teacher loved his class and that everyone she knows revered him. He inspired her with his optimism and said he was still “chipper Darby” every time she visited him when the cancer had put him back in the hospital.

She said she crawled under her cubicle at work Friday and cried upon receiving the e-mail from headmaster Bruce Wachter telling St. Edward’s alumni that Gibbons had passed away. If at all possible, Albrecht said she wants to fly home from Boston for his Celebration of Life ceremony on Feb. 16.

“That day, there won’t be any traffic in Vero Beach because everyone will be there,” she said.

Maria Kovachev, executive director of the Vero Beach Main Street program, plans to pay her respects to Gibbons as well, as she feels that she owes him a huge debt of gratitude for his tireless work with her sons Paul and Christopher.

“I will miss his pleasant, soft-spoken voice filled with loud, soul-filled messages,” said Maria Kovachev, a former St. Edward’s Upper School parent.

Christopher and Paul Kovachev both sought Gibbons’ guidance when it came time to plan for college and came back after enrolling at the University of Florida to consult him whenever life threw them a curve.

“If it’s possible to be bigger than a father figure, he was bigger than a father figure to my boys,” she said. “

Fraulein Jaffe, who teaches at Maitland Farms Preschool, worked closely with Gibbons for 12 years as a parent and a volunteer. Since her sons Logan and Elliot have been enrolled at St. Edward’s School, she has served as president of the Parent Association and on the Board of Trustees and the school’s Executive Committee.

Jaffe also served alongside Gibbons on the Board of Directors of Dollars for Scholars of Indian River County, where he was a former president, and they worked on the Scholarship Awards Committee and the Richardson-Jaffe Scholars selection panel together. Dollars for Scholars is setting up a scholarship fund in honor of Gibbons and his many years of service to students.

“He was a big man with a big heart and he had a passion for all facets of education that was evident in everything he did. “ she said. “He worked really hard to find colleges that were the right fit, not only for the kids at St. Edward’s, but also for the students he met through Dollars for Scholars.”

Jaffe said she enjoyed lively, spirited and important discussions with Gibbons over the years on a variety of topics. She said he was the perfect intellectual sparring partner for someone who enjoys that kind of give and take.

“I liked his willingness to listen to others and to respect others’ opinions, he never shut anyone out,” she said. “He was so talented and intelligent and had a wealth of knowledge, I always enjoyed his sense of humor and his writing was a pleasure to read.”

Since her son Logan is a high school junior, Jaffe and many others must now ponder the reality that they will have to navigate the complex process of selecting a college and getting in without Gibbons, a repository of important facts and details about every college, from the Ivy League to the obscure, tiny private schools in small towns across the United States. She said Gibbons left Logan with some words of wisdom to light his way.

“He told Logan that he was in the driver’s seat,” she said. “He listened to Darby more than he listens to me about certain things, about college.”

One reason Gibbons empathized with students struggling with their career choices and college decisions was because his life took an unexpected turn after high school. Gibbons attended the prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and was full-steam-ahead on his way to medical school while in college at Syracuse University.

But a mentor, Deerfield Academy Headmaster Frank Boyden, had a lasting impact on Gibbons. Boyden took Gibbons to the campus of a small prep school in the Massachusetts foothills and told him that he needed to become a teacher there.

Gibbons couldn’t shake the idea of becoming a teacher and applied and was hired on at the Winchendon School after college graduation in 1970.

So Gibbons converted his desire to help heal people physically into a career where instead he stimulated students’ minds and helped soothe more than a few souls with the ointment of his kind words and his sincere and genuine understanding. As a teacher, he was known to be able to bring literature to life for his students and to be able to engage even the most challenging group of students in a freshman English class.

“Darby thought being a doctor was what he really wanted to do, but he found that teaching students and molding them was just as rewarding, if not more,” Patti Gibbons said.

Patti and Darby Gibbons met as teenagers at a yearbook signing party and on their first date went to the Ocean Grill. After college, they were reunited and married in 1977 and Darby earned a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts in 1984.

Even back in the late 1960s, before he became a teacher or a leader, Darby was a commanding force in his group of friends, always the life of the party, whether the party was discussing current events or hanging out atop “Waldo’s Mountain” watching the ocean, according to Charlotte Terry.

“Darby was always fun and funny, he had a wonderful sense of humor. He always had a twinkle in his eye, kind of like he had a joke to tell,” Terry said. “Up until the last, Darby still had a great sense of humor, sometimes a little macabre at times, but a great sense of humor, he traded jokes back and forth with everyone.”

His personality, combined with a burning love for politics, took Gibbons into the public arena in Winchendon in the early 1980s. He ran for and won an upset election for the office of Selectman in the burg of 10,000 people.

“That was a great time in his life, he loved New England and that’s also the time when we were starring our marriage and when our daughter Emily was born,” Patti Gibbons said. “He was teaching at Winchendon and became Director of Admissions there and he was so proud of winning that election, an election they told him he couldn’t win.”

The family moved back to Vero Beach in the early 1990s, and Gibbons was hired by Peter Benedict to teach English at St. Edward’s Upper School.

Along with his rollicking, social side, Terry also remembers Gibbons’ serious, academic side and the way he communicated with people young and old, whether with students at school or retirees at St. Francis Manor, where he had been on the board of directors since 2001.

“Over the years, he was very fond of my mother and father, my father was a doctor and he would come over and talk to my dad about medical school and about being a doctor. This was when he was thinking about going to medical school.”

A generation later, Terry’s two children benefited from Gibbons’ counseling as students at St. Edward’s Upper School. Bridie Beuttell graduated in 1995 and Jack Buettell in 1999. He assisted Jack with getting into Vanderbilt and Bridie into Southern Methodist University.

“He was very helpful in all of that, it’s a confounding process to go through as a parent,” she said. “He was wonderful with young people.”

Terry also took a class from Gibbons, which was offered through the Adult Education program at St. Edward’s.

“He had a great course, it was on reading Florida authors,” she said. “We had such a good time and we would organize dinners around the themes of the books.”

While Terry said it was very hard for her to see her old friend suffer and deteriorate from cancer, she said she found inspiration in the graceful way that Gibbons dealt with all the heartaches and the physical pain of his illness.

“The optimism that both Darby and Patti had all through this was amazing,” she said. “They probably lived more in the past two years than they ever had. They really enjoyed every moment, it’s been fascinating to watch.”

Patti Gibbons described the added urgency and immediacy she and her husband had in their lives the past two years as one of the “gifts of the cancer.”

“It wasn’t until he got cancer that Darby realized how much people loved him,” Gibbons said. “His hospital room at Jackson Memorial when he was down there was absolutely covered with cards and letters, Emily and I made a point to hang up every card in his room.”

Realizing that life was short, Patti and Darby Gibbons set aside time to be together each week. They ran errands together each Saturday, enjoyed a movie as a “date night” each Saturday night and a leisurely breakfast on Sunday mornings, sitting on the porch in the Cracker Barrel rocking chairs they had bought for retirement.

“We realized the importance of not waiting to sit in those chairs,” she said. “So we decided to start sitting in them as often as we could and just talking and being together.”

Terry said she thought the Celebration of Life to commemorate what would have been his 61st birthday on Feb. 16 will be a fitting tribute for Gibbons, something he would have enjoyed attending and maybe speaking to the crowd, telling a few jokes.

Patti Gibbons said she wants the service to be reverent but joyous, and plans to serve birthday cake at the reception and to recruit some of her husband’s former students to provide music and to speak.

“He had a beautiful life and it will be a tribute to him to have the laughter and the tears together,” Patti Gibbons said. “This is a great loss, but Darby brought great joy to people.”