Kerry Temple | January 11, 2018
Jim Gibbons ’53 worked at Notre Dame for 43 years. He spent 37 of those years — from 1962 until his retirement in 1999 — in university relations as an assistant vice president and director of special events and protocol. That means he planned the events, handled the arrangements, put on the dinners, receptions and convocations, took care of the trustees, directed 38 building dedications and organized the campus visits of four U.S. presidents and a parade of international heads of state. He made sure flowers got into the rooms of important guests at the Morris Inn. He could get a room at the inn when visitors were told there was none. He always had the last football ticket and one more parking pass. He knew who should sit at which table and who should not sit next to whom. He did his job so well that, when President Gerald Ford visited in 1975, Gibbons was asked to come work at the White House.
Back in the day, when I was new to the editorship of this magazine and so required to attend the university relations committee meetings of the board of trustees, Gibb — as fine a dresser as I have personally known — and I would sit at the far end of the long table. He would pass me notes that said things like, “Nice tie” and “Man, you’re looking sharp today” and “You’re the best.” We were like sixth graders in the back of the class — him grinning impishly and me so serious and afraid.
He was meticulous with detail, sought perfection, was driven by a desire to please. He epitomized, to me, the excellence and attentiveness, the grace and care and generosity of spirit that was Notre Dame. He called me every year on my birthday, didn’t miss a year, even long after he retired. The calls made me feel special; I wasn’t the only one. He made dozens of us feel good with those evening birthday phone calls.
A three-sport standout at Chicago’s Mt. Carmel High School, Gibbons came to Notre Dame in 1949 on an athletic scholarship and became a starter in basketball and baseball. All he wanted, he said, was to be a professional baseball player. He graduated in 1953 and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. That summer, giving up a “600-foot home run” to future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson initiated him into the game’s next level, but his dream was officially derailed when he was drafted into the Army later that year. In 1956, teaching and coaching at his old high school, he took a pay cut to return to Notre Dame as an assistant baseball and basketball coach — a deal that included training-table meals and a bed in the firehouse.