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Presidential Spotlight: President Jerome Gilbert

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Marshall President Jerry Gilbert speaks at a meet-and-greet in December 2015.

Marshall President Jerry Gilbert speaks at a meet-and-greet in December 2015.

Rick Haye

Rick Haye

Marshall President Jerry Gilbert speaks at a meet-and-greet in December 2015.

Hannah Swartz, For the Parthenon

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Editor’s note: Jerome “Jerry” Gilbert, 62, is the president of Marshall University. Gilbert has a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering from Mississippi State University and a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Duke University. He assumed the presidency in January 2016. He and his wife Leigh have been married for 35 years and are the parents of three children, Caroline, Sallie and Peter. They have one granddaughter, Eliza. Reporter Hannah Swartz recently interviewed Gilbert using the Marcel Proust/Vanity Fair magazine format, which is designed to reveal the personal side of newsmakers.

Q: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A: That’s probably one of the more difficult questions on the list. I think to be at peace with yourself and your family, however you define that family, and to have sufficient resources to have a comfortable lifestyle—not necessary an excessive lifestyle. To have meaningful relationships with individuals, either friends or loved ones. And to have some sense of purpose and belonging.

Q: What is your greatest fear?

A: I don’t have many fears. At one time, I had the fear that I might die before my children got out of high school and I’ve gone well beyond that. Not for myself, but for them. Because I didn’t want them to not have both parents in the picture to get them through their adolescent stages. I guess my biggest fear now is that something would happen to my children or grandchild. I don’t have a fear of anything happening to me because I feel like I’m at the point where, really, I’ve gone beyond all those fears of things that could personally happen to me. So, I don’t think I have any real fears.

Q: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

A: I guess my forgetfulness. Sometimes it’s not exactly on purpose, but I could avoid it. It’s a little bit of laziness, I guess. Particularly when I’m interfacing with my wife and she reminds me that I should have told her something and I think to myself, “I probably should have.”

Q: What is the trait you most deplore in others?

A: Easy—dishonesty.

Q: Which living person do you most admire?

A: Probably my mother who is 96 years old. She has lived a long life by herself—my father died early. But she has been very supportive of everyone, emotionally, and has never been judgmental of anyone. Although she may disagree, she has never criticized unjustly or anything like that. She is a very kind and forgiving person.

Q: What is your greatest extravagance?

A: I guess it’s all relative to what the extravagance would be. Probably money spent on quality food. Organic food for instance versus normal food. I think most people would call that an extravagance. I don’t necessarily call it an extravagance but I think most people would call it an extravagance—that is, spending extra money for quality food. Same with dining at a restaurant. It’s probably extravagant to go to some of the restaurants.

Q: What is your current state of mind?

A: My current, this morning state of mind is I’m trying to get over a cold, so I’m really bothered by some stuffiness in my ears and I’m having some issues as the result of it—minor irritation. In general, if I look at a longer-term state of mind, I am very content with who I am and where I am.

Q: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

A: Blind loyalty.

Q: On what occasion do you lie?

A: Never.

Q: What do you most dislike about your appearance?

A: I guess the sagginess that has come with old age and the lack of hair on the top of my head. I’m not terribly vain. I think all of us are a little bit, but not terribly.

Q: Which living person do you most despise?

A: I don’t hate anyone. And I was taught at an early age that you don’t hate the person, you hate what they do. So, it’s hard for me to say that I despise or hate someone. I do hate those people who take advantage of other people, and abuse them, whether it’s through verbal or physical or some other kind of abuse. I don’t have a single person that I would point out that I despise or hate.

Q: What is the quality you most like in a man?

A: Honesty. The ability to do what they say they’re going to do—sticking to their word.

Q: What is the quality you most like in a woman?

A: I’d say probably the same thing. I don’t really draw a lot of distinction between men and women. Particularly when you’re talking about characters and how they behave and how they act out in their life, I try to use the same yardstick to measure both.

Q: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

A: My wife has said I overuse the word silo recently. When I talk about people being in their own little world—that they’re siloed. So, I’ve started to not say siloed so much since I’ve been using it a lot the past two to three months. I think we suffer from some silos at Marshall. People get in their own areas, and they don’t come out of them. So, that’s the context that I’ve used it in; we’re trying to break down those silos.

Q: What or who is the greatest love of your life?

A: My wife would probably say it’s her and I’d probably say that also, but my three children and my granddaughter probably are. And she (my wife) would probably say the same thing. She has more attachment to them than to me, so it’s a different relationship because they’re blood and she’s not.

Q: When and where were you happiest?

A: I think there are different stages of happiness. I certainly was very happy as a child. I had a very idyllic upbringing. I’m very happy right now. There are very few periods when I’ve been unhappy. There are different types of happy—there’s an innocence as a child, where you’re happy and secured, where you haven’t taken on responsibilities of your family. That’s a security that you don’t have any other time of your life. When you become more independent and fall in love and get married, I think there’s a new happiness that comes there and I think there’s some happiness as you go through your professional life in terms of accomplishments. They’re all different. I’ve never been unhappy; I guess I would say. I’ve been very fortunate.

Q: Which talent would you most like to have?

A: To play an instrument, I don’t have that talent. I would also like to be able to sing better, I can carry a tune, but I would like to be a Frank Sinatra.

Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

A: Well, I wouldn’t change a lot but one thing I would change is I tend to be a perfectionist. So, I’m kind of hard on myself and hard on others, so I’d probably back off a little on that.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement?

A: My children and my granddaughter. I can truly say that they are the most generous and caring people that I’ve ever met. They’re all very well adjusted and have the right view of the world and care about other people. Always honest, have never done the wrong thing, none of them have ever been into any kind of trouble. I can’t say the same for myself when I was their age, but they really are fine people, and I’m proud of them.

Q: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

A: Probably Frank Sinatra.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

A: I think you can answer that a couple of different ways. I probably would want to live in the south, and I consider West Virginia part of the south because that’s my culture. If I could speak a foreign language quite well, I might want to live in Italy.

Q: What is your most treasured possession?

A: I could say my three children but those aren’t possessions. I don’t really have a physical thing that I really am attached to. No family heirlooms or anything like that, but I guess some of the pictures I have of my family might be treasured possessions.

Q: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

A: The lowest depth of misery is being alone and having no one to care for you. Wherever that is, whatever situation that might be. Not having people around you that love you.

Q: What is your favorite occupation?

A: My favorite occupation has always been in higher education. The reason that I like that so much is that it’s a fun job, and it is fun being around students, it’s fun being around the education process. It’s very fulfilling to be able to help people and I think higher ed. is a place where you can really help a person and propel them in their professional and personal lives.

Q: What is your most marked characteristic?

A: People say I’m nice and I’m friendly. I am a people person, very outgoing and my affable nature makes me a very friendly person.

Q: What do you most value in your friends?

A: Their concern for me, their honesty with me and their support of me.

Q: Who are your favorite writers?

A: I like a lot of different writers. I like history, so David McCullough I think is a fine writer and Joseph Ellis is a great history writer. I was at Mississippi State with John Grisham, but I didn’t know him. We graduated the same year. I don’t consider him a great writer, I mean I think he’s got a knack for writing books. He’s turned into a phenomenal popular writer. I’m not fond of him, but I really like Pat Conroy who wrote “The Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad.” I like all different authors.

Q: Who is your hero of fiction?

A: Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I, with some students, read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and then “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee, and he (Atticus Finch) is not the same in those two books because he was idolized by his daughter in the first book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and then seen more as a real person in the second book.

Q: Which historical figure do you most identify with?

A: I guess by ‘identify with’ not so much who you think you’re like but one that you admire. It would have to be George Washington. He was kind of a self-made man. Not highly educated formally, but very courageous and did a lot of amazing things to start the country.

Q: Who are your heroes in real life?

A: Well there’s people that I know that I would consider a hero—my older brother would be one. My mother. Certainly, in my lifetime I would say Martin Luther King. Of course, he’s no longer living, but he was alive when I was growing up.

Q: What are your favorite names?

A: My wife and I, when we picked our children’s names, we picked kind of simple and I guess solid names. I have a daughter named Caroline, a son Peter, and I really like those names. I also have a daughter named Sallie, which I also like, but probably not as much as the other two names. My sister-in-law, Victoria, too—I think that’s a great name.

Q: If you could change your name, what would it be?

A: Thomas, it was my father’s name.

Q: What is it that you most dislike?

A: People that hate other people.

Q: What is your greatest regret?

A: I don’t have many regrets, really. I probably wasn’t as nice to my little sister growing up as I should have been. That’s probably a regret.

Q: How would you like to die?

A: Quickly. I think it would be very difficult to face a terminal illness. Although I think you’d deal with it, but it’s not the way I’d want to go. I’d prefer a quicker death out of terminal illness death. My wife is always saying, “You’re going to get killed out there on your bicycle riding up and down those roads,” and I say “Well, at least I’ll die doing something I like.” I don’t think I’m going to get killed on a bicycle, though.

Q: What is your motto?

A: To never give up and to always do your best. Those two kind of go hand-in-hand.

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