Where the Rhododendrons Grow: The Life and Times of President Jerry Gilbert


Ryan Fischer

Marshall University President Jerry Gilbert poses for a photograph inside his office on Monday, Jan. 25.

“I want to wake up in the morning

Where the rhododendrons grow,

Where the sun keeps a-creeping

Into where I’m a-sleeping,

And the songbirds sing ‘Hello.’

I want to wander through the wildwood

Where the fragrant blossoms blow

And creep back to the mountains

Where the rhododendrons grow,”

President Jerry Gilbert recited in his office, recalling the lines of a camp wake-up song from years ago with ease, like he awoke to the song yesterday.

The song, called “The Rhododendron Song,” brings back to him cherished memories of one of his first times traveling out of his home state of Mississippi to stay for a month attending the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia.

“I had not traveled a lot outside of the state of Mississippi, so it was a really big deal to get selected, and then to fly into Charleston,” Gilbert said. “It was just amazing generosity that the state of West Virginia had extended to us to take us to an outdoor camp experience, where they brought in some of the leading scientists to talk to us.”

Little did he know at the time, this camp is what would help to “peak [his] interest in science” and what would introduce him to the state he would eventually live in as the president of a state university almost 42 years later.

Back in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, Gilbert grew up in the late 50s, early 60s during a “period of innocence.” Times were simpler, and life was family-oriented. Kids played outdoors in their bare feet all night in times of warm weather without fear of crime or really anything else existing outside of an intense game of backyard baseball.

“We sort of grew up in that sense of not knowing about the dangers of the world, because they weren’t that real,” Gilbert said. “They were more external.”

Having been raised in a highly-segregated community, many young children like Gilbert eventually had to “unlearn a lot of things…that society in [their] region had taught.”

Along with unlearning social traditions as a young boy, Gilbert had to learn a new tradition of experiencing bomb drills in response to the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He and his classmates would be sent home from his elementary school every so often as part of a bomb drill to gather with their families and hide in bomb shelters built by themselves or their neighbors. Other than that, fear was seldom present in Gilbert’s childhood.

And he certainly was not afraid of pursuing an education, despite coming from a family where neither of his parents received a four-year college education. His mother had gone to college for two years, and his father was not able to go to college. Both, however, were very bright individuals regardless and encouraged Gilbert and his siblings to further their educations.

“They always expressed to us the desire that we would go to college, so there was never any expectations that we wouldn’t,” Gilbert said. “It was always assumed.”

At Mississippi State University, Gilbert found himself becoming involved with the honors program, the engineering honorary society of Tau Beta Pi, the professional engineering fraternity Theta Tau, and the student government association.

On top of his involvements, Gilbert also chose to pursue a degree in biological engineering, a field of study that provided “a neat combination” of math and science and was generally unheard of in many colleges around the country.

In fact, when Gilbert announced his field of study during a speech to the Southern Regional Honors Council for the position of vice president, a faculty member called Gilbert out afterwards and said, “What the hell is biological engineering?” This incident was one of many that Gilbert would have to endure.

“For probably 30 years after that I was still explaining to people what it was,” Gilbert said. “There was a long period of time where no one knew what it was.”

Today, however, biomedical engineering is one of the fastest-growing engineering disciplines, one that may end up starting at Marshall in the near future, according to Gilbert.

After “staying on top of [his] studies” and gaining inductions into the Engineering Hall of Fame at Mississippi State and the Mississippi State University Hall of Fame for his academic accomplishments, he began to think about taking his talents to graduate school, but it was not without some struggle.

During Gilbert’s senior year of college, he and his family endured a personal tragedy when his father died. This led Gilbert to put his graduate school plans on hold.

“I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Gilbert said.

While his father was still very ill, Gilbert took his GRE “cold” without studying and happened to score “well enough” on the exam.

“Then I decided, ‘Well, I’ll apply to graduate school,” Gilbert said.

Since his father had just passed away and his mother had only attended college for two years, Gilbert “stumbled into graduate school without knowing a lot about it.”

He applied only to Duke University for graduate school, after hearing about its biomedical program.

Upon applying, he was contacted by the head of the graduate program at Duke for a job opportunity as a graduate assistant in biomedical engineering, which would help to pay for his tuition and other school costs.

“And I said, ‘That sounds pretty good to me!’” Gilbert said.

Soon, Gilbert found himself packing up and making a long 14-hour drive from Jackson, Mississippi, to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

“It was a fabulous, life-changing experience,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert eventually attained his doctorate in biomedical engineering and continued to enjoy his research in the scientific field, but he was eventually attracted to various academic positions in different universities by the purpose he found in both helping and learning from students.

“They’re so stimulating, and they keep you thinking. They challenge you,” Gilbert said. “I tell people that I usually learn as much from a classroom of students as they learn from me, because students have a lot to bring to the table, too.”

Through his work as a professor and in administration, Gilbert had the opportunity to interact with “phenomenal” students who chose to overcome some boundaries in their lives while they pursue their education, just as he had when he was their age.

“That’s inspirational when you run across students that have that type of drive and commitment and really want to do something to better themselves,” Gilbert said. “It has nothing to do with where you’re from or whatever, you can do whatever you want to do.”

Since attending college and gaining a professional education is increasingly more expected of students than it was back when Gilbert was just starting out on his journey in education, Gilbert said his advice to students would be to always seek out the help of others.

“The biggest fear I had in college was that I would get behind and somehow not be able to catch back up, or get in a hole and never be able to get out of it,” Gilbert said. “So, seek out as much input and advice that you can get on campus. Really deal with [situations] as they come along, stay on top of your studies, and enjoy the college experience.”

Aside his work with college students and institutions, Gilbert said he is most proud of his three children, Caroline, Sallie and Peter, and his 18-month-old granddaughter, Eliza.

“They’re all very giving and very intelligent people that would help anybody with anything,” Gilbert said.

He also looks forward to when his wife, Leigh, will be able to move from Mississippi to West Virginia in June.

In the meantime, when he is not busy with his duties as the 37th president of Marshall University, one can find Gilbert reading a book (such as the biography of John Marshall, which he just finished), listening and singing along to “old music” (specifically, Frank Sinatra, country music, jazz, soft rock, symphonic, etc.), and spending time cycling outdoors (usually for about 30 miles or more).

When he arrived back in West Virginia for the second time in his life, he wasn’t much changed. He still enjoys working with others who share a passion for learning and “realizing their dreams,” just as he did as a boy in the early 70s attending the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia.

Gilbert has carried “The Rhododendron Song” in his memory for nearly 42 years, and now, while he remains in the Rhododendron State, there is no doubt he will continue to hum along to its tune for as long as he “wake[s] up in the morning where the rhododendrons grow.”

Becca Turnbull can be contacted at [email protected].