Thanks for the Memories
words by Mary Ann Littell / photography by Pete Byron & Dan Katz
How does a former Catholic priest become the dean of a school for allied health professionals? As unlikely as it sounds, he picks up a copy of The New York Times and answers a help-wanted ad. The rest is history: the history of a man who found his life’s calling and a school that found a leader.
he man is David Gibson; the school is UMDNJ-School of Health Related Professions (SHRP). Gibson is retiring this fall after 33 years at SHRP, 16 of them as dean. During that time, he’s led the school through years of unprecedented growth. When he first came to SHRP, known then as the School of Allied Health Professions (SAHP), it had 110 students. Today, it serves approximately 1,200 full- and part-time students and boasts 33 academic programs, 17 of them on the graduate level.
Gibson, modest to a fault, doesn’t take credit for this expansion. “The combined vision of several individuals created SHRP,” he says. “The founding dean, Dr. John Martin, was the force behind establishing it. Dr. Stanley Bergen, former UMDNJ president, pushed it forward, and I was fortunate to be at the helm as it grew.”
On the eve of his retirement, Gibson talked about his life and his years at SHRP. His story is full of twists and turns. The path he followed enabled him to have a successful business career, obtain his doctorate, marry and raise a family, and in his spare time, paint, garden and write poetry. “I’ve done it all,” he says with a laugh, “and boy has it been fun!”
When Gibson entered the priesthood as a young man of 28, it never occurred to him that he’d end up in higher education. The Pennsylvania native, one of six children, was the first person in his family to become a priest. He says he got the calling in high school. Gibson studied at Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, obtaining his bachelor’s degree and then completing four years of graduate study.
He was ordained and became an associate pastor at a church in King of Prussia, Pa. It was there that he found he had a natural talent for leadership and consensus-building. “One of my greatest joys during this time was serving as president of the local ministerium, which was a coalition of ministers,” he says. “They’d never let in a Catholic priest before.”
It was the late ’60s, and the Vietnam War was in the headlines. Gibson, opposed to the war, became an activist and led the ministerium in peaceful protests. “We’d go to antiwar demonstrations holding signs saying ‘Pray for Peace,’” Gibson says. “Once a busload of Catholic high school students drove by and made unpleasant gestures. I was embarrassed, but a Presbyterian minister who was with me said Presbyterian kids would’ve done the same thing.”
Gibson continued to minister to his flock, but after two years, began having doubts about his chosen profession. “I realized that I didn’t think I could live the life of a priest,” he says. “It was just too lonely for me.” Gibson met with the Cardinal, his spiritual leader, and told him he’d decided to leave the priesthood. He then took a trip cross-country to California, camping, painting and sketching along the way and reflecting on what he really wanted to do.
Upon his return, he attended a training institute in Washington, D.C., for former clergy of all denominations. He had to decide whether to pursue a career in business or one in community service, and he chose business, signing on with a small food company in a Philadelphia suburb that distributed meat products. He soon found that his social conscience was alive and well. On his first business trip, visiting a poultry company in Birmingham, Ala., he encountered racist attitudes and spoke up. “I told them their comments were inappropriate,” he said. “I’m sure they thought, ‘Who the heck asked you?’ but surprisingly, they took it pretty well.”
Gibson was successful at the company, even launching a brand-new business: selling fruit. “We began selling apples and frozen boysenberries from New Zealand,” he recalls. “I called on Polaner’s, the jam company, which was based in Roseland at the time, and made a big sale: 40,000 pounds of boysenberries. That really got the ball rolling. I also sold sliced apples to pie companies.” After five years, he’d worked his way up to executive vice-president. During this time, he married, and he and his wife Judy had two sons.
While attending a food trade association meeting in Atlantic City, Gibson serendipitously found his next job opportunity. Paging through a newspaper he picked up in the lobby, he was intrigued by an ad for a job as executive assistant to John Martin, dean of the allied health school at the then College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (CMDNJ). “I changed my resume to a CV, which seemed more appropriate to academia, and applied,” he recalls.
Gibson was hired and began work at the allied health school in December 1975. Soon after, he and his family relocated to South Orange to be closer to the Newark campus. “At the time, the school was not a separate entity, just an assortment of programs scattered throughout the University — in the dental school, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, even Central Administration,” he says. The University’s Board of Trustees supported the establishment of a separate school, so one of Gibson’s first initiatives was to help in its creation. SAHP was formally launched in December 1976.
At the time there was no other allied health school in the state, but many community colleges had allied health programs. “They were fearful, calling CMDNJ ‘the octopus’ because it was grabbing everything up, including the students,” explains Gibson. “We formed partnerships with the community colleges, but they were unequal partnerships because we were precluded from offering degrees. We couldn’t even offer joint degrees. We could only offer courses and give certificates.”
SAHP continued to create new programs and attract students. In 1976, Bergen met with faculty at Rutgers Medical School (now UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School), which had a large Physician Assistant (PA) program. He argued that as this was an allied health profession, the program belonged at the allied health school. “The PA program was transferred to SAHP, along with $110 of funding. While that wasn’t quite enough to support the program, it was a great motivator to find some grant money,” Gibson says drily.
In 1981 SAHP changed its name to SHRP, to better reflect its broadened scope. In 1987 the school was given degree-granting authority. Two years later, Martin took a sabbatical and retired shortly thereafter. Gibson, busy studying for his doctorate, did not apply for the dean’s job at first, but was convinced to do so by his colleagues. He was named acting dean in 1989 and became dean of the school in 1992, the same year he received his doctorate.
“When I became dean, I realized that if you’re not a growing organization, you’re a dying organization. But you also have to prune it,” says this avid gardener. So the growth and pruning began. Graduate programs were added, and some basic undergraduate programs were eliminated, including radiography and surgical technology, which were offered by many community colleges.
Gibson says the addition of graduate programs fueled the growth of the school. Other factors driving growth were the strength of SHRP’s partnerships and the development of distance learning. The school made its first foray into distance learning in 1989, when classes were broadcast via the videoconferencing tool V-Tel to Scotch Plains and Stratford. “This technology was brand-new, and we didn’t have the IT structure to get it going,” says Gibson. “So we looked for students who were high-tech, accepted them into the school and gave them free tuition in return for their help in getting us through the process.” Today, SHRP is a leader in distance education, reaching students throughout New Jersey and around the world, as far away as South Korea and Japan.
The school has also continued its collaboration with other academic institutions across New Jersey. “We’ve forged some pretty powerful and wonderful partnerships that are beneficial to the University and the state,” says Gibson. “It’s more cost-efficient to collaborate and we’re saving money by avoiding duplication of programs. Through partnerships, we’re also able to run essential programs that are costly but have a small enrollment.”
With so much accomplished, Gibson has no mixed feelings about stepping down. “I’ve always felt you should retire while you still love what you’re doing,” he states. He plans to teach a course at SHRP in the spring, and hopes to expand his teaching role. He may become involved in activities at South Orange’s Seton Hall University, whose president, Monsignor Robert Sheeran, he describes as a “fantastic preacher and a good friend.” He’ll also continue puttering in his garden and painting, mostly watercolor landscapes and still-lifes.
Above all, he plans to maintain his close ties to the university he served so well. “I’ve been so fortunate to have been part of a dynamic institution and blessed with a great faculty, staff, chairs and associate deans,” he says.