By Kaylee Posey ’15
The email contained no subject heading. Simpson senior-to-be Caitlin Dicus wondered what it was about.
When she found out, “the biggest smile” crossed her face, followed by something that “falls between dancing and flailing.”
“I’m sure I looked ridiculous,” she says. “When you’re that excited, though, you don’t necessarily care what you look like. Sometimes it’s just nice to have confirmation that someone thinks you can do it; whatever ‘it’ is for you.”
Dicus had discovered that she was Simpson’s first recipient of the Donald D. Gibson Scholarship, a $3,000 award given to a second-semester junior in the Division of Humanities at Simpson.
For Dicus, an English and psychology double major, the scholarship will help her achieve her goal of pursuing a master’s degree in English and becoming a professor of creative writing.
“I’m pretty lucky to have as much help from Simpson as I do,” she says. “Without support, I might not be able to go for my postgrad…. The things I want to do with my future can’t happen without a master’s from a good program. The Gibson Scholarship is helping me out with that.”
She first heard about the scholarship from David Wolf, a Simpson professor of English, while she was working on the Modern Dickens Project, in which individual writers each write a chapter in a serial novel.
The story of Donald Gibson’s life, and why he decided to assist Simpson students, would make a good book. In fact, it did. His memoir, Iowa Sky: A Memoir, is available on Amazon.com.
Known as “Don,” Gibson was born to tenant farmers in Harrison County, Iowa.
“He was a man of ideas,” said his widow, Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, during a recent interview. “He did not want to sit on that farm and spend the rest of his life like that.” He was more interested in an environment “where he could make his mind, heart and soul grow.”
That led him to Simpson College, where he was mentored by Joseph W. Walt, the legendary professor who taught history from 1955 to 1994.
“Simpson, to Don, was a very, very important place,” Kim-Gibson said. “[It] was his first place of ideas…a vital place…where he first tasted what it was like to pursue ideas, to get hold of [them], to expand [them], and to look for some more.”
While attending Simpson, he was drawn to the Humanities because of his love for mankind and his want of fairness, equality, and justice for all.
“His concern was always how to help human nature and human society grow better,” she said. “He thought, in order to understand one’s self and the people as a group—as a nation—one needed to understand not only the present, but one has to understand what went on in the past.”
Gibson graduated from Simpson in 1960 with a history major and was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. He went on to teach at Indianola High School.
“In his writings, [Don] said that probably the most meaningful impact he made was when he taught at the high school,” said Jerry Kelley, an executive assistant to the president at Simpson and former Indianola teacher.
When Kelley met Gibson, it was during the Vietnam War, a highly political era. Gibson invited him to attend a rally for Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate who sought the Democratic nomination for president against Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent president. They accepted leadership roles in the McCarthy campaign after the rally.
In 1968, the same year that Gibson began teaching at Simpson, he attended the National Democratic Convention in Chicago, where police and protestors clashed in riots. “I got to watch them on TV, but Don was involved,” Kelley says.
In 1970, Gibson earned his master’s degree in German history from the University of Iowa, after which he did postgraduate work in Germany from 1971 to 1974, sifting through what remained of documents on who voted for Hitler; much of the documentation had been destroyed by a firestorm that tore through Dresden during the war.
Having returned to the United States, Gibson joined the humanities council. In 1977, he began working at the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he directed state programs and was acting chairman in 1993 under President Bill Clinton.
That is also where he and Dai Sil Kim met. “The most important thing in Don’s life, and in our life together, was a sense of humor,” she says. “He knew how to look at life with positive eyes and a sense of irony, dealing with struggles of life with laughter.”
Gibson retired in 1997 and moved to New York becoming a board member of the Huguenot Historical Society. He lived there with his wife, Dai Sil, a documentary film maker who is very connected to the New York arts scene, until his death in 2009. Funding for the Donald D. Gibson scholarship is provided by the Silence Broken Foundation.
This foundation, established by Gibson and his wife, supports research and public education projects that investigate crimes against women in this and the past century, as well as projects devoted to compelling social issues related to fundamental human rights and quality.
Kelley describes Don Gibson as being “extremely passionate, extremely intelligent, very well read, and didn’t want to waste his time much.”
Although he wanted to explore the world, Gibson remained fond of his Iowa upbringing. He used to tell his wife how beautiful the Iowa sky was.
“Don was a man of the sky,” she says. “He loved the sky. He wanted his mind to stretch up to the sky, far to the oceans, and go to expand the narrow, confined visions where people’s greed grows into love.”
The Donald D. Gibson Scholarship was created by Kim-Gibson. It’s not about simply honoring his name, she says.
“It is honoring and remembering his values through all these young people who get his scholarship,” she says. She hopes the recipients will “seek for improving the quality of life in their own way,” because “Don was very keen about working together for a better society.”
In addition to a Simpson student, scholarships in Gibson’s name also are awarded to Indianola High School seniors.
Asked if she had any advice for Dicus, Simpson’s scholarship recipient, Kim-Gibson said she would like for her to “improve her mind, to pursue quality of life, to value real values of human life such as equality of all human beings, justice for all, and fairness.”