A career well spent

Joe and Neva Gibbons befriended countless students over 5 decades

It was 1963 and Joe Gibbons was eager to make his mark as a brand-new associate professor of chemical engineering at Carolina. Gibbons was so dedicated, he drove to campus on Christmas Day to gather materials to work on over the holidays.

His wife, Neva, came along and was surprised to find several international students huddled together in an engineering classroom, poring over textbooks.

“I jokingly asked them, ‘Is this mean professor making you study on Christmas Day?’ ” she says, but realized they probably had nothing else to do.

The Gibbonses invited the students to their home for a holiday dinner and thus began a tradition spanning five decades in which they routinely hosted students for meals and holiday gatherings.

Joe Gibbons assisted students in other ways, as well, helping some buy suitable clothing for job interviews, making connections for others that jumpstarted their careers. He also provided funds for a teaching award and undergraduate scholarship in the college. But it was his wife’s support in befriending the students that he most treasured.

“Neva has been one of the best friends and supporters that chemical engineering students have ever known,” says Gibbons, a 1956 Carolina engineering graduate whose career as a faculty member, department chair, associate dean and interim dean in the College of Engineering and Computing spanned from 1963 to 2006.

Her partnership in helping mentor and support generations of engineering students led Gibbons to honor his wife of 61 years in a special way. He and fellow chemical engineering professor Mike Matthews had talked about establishing an educational seminar for engineering faculty and graduate students, inviting well-known engineering educators who would promote best teaching practices in the college.

Gibbons decided to endow the seminar series — now in its 10th year — and name it in his wife’s honor, a deed he kept secret until the first seminar began.

“I was surprised, all right,” she quips. “I said something like, ‘There goes my beach house.’ ”

The Gibbonses actually do own a beach house now, and they enjoy spending a lot of time there to be near three of their grandchildren. But the memories of life on campus haven’t dimmed with the passage of time.

“It was a wonderful experience for me to see so many students enjoy having a meal with us,” she says. “I still remember many of them, and have even kept up with some of them.”

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