John G. Gilbert worked as the “education senator” alongside his close friend SIU President Delyte W. Morris in helping transform Southern Illinois University Carbondale from a small teachers college to a major university in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now, a lithograph of Gilbert by renowned artist Herbert Fink is directly across from a photograph of Morris and his wife, Dorothy, at the entrance of Morris Library’s browsing room after an unveiling today (Sept. 29).
For Gilbert’s son, J. Phil Gilbert, who is also chair of the SIU Board of Trustees, the portrait of his father is precisely where it belongs.
“It’s almost surreal,” said Phil Gilbert, a senior judge with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. “They worked together for so many years to build this university. To have their pictures near each other is very heartening.”
John Pollitz, dean of Library Affairs, is pleased with where the etching is placed. Having Gilbert and the Morrises — who are on a tandem bicycle — facing one another at the browsing room entrance has symbolic meaning, he said.
“That room has been a tradition in Morris Library from its very beginning,” he said. “State Sen. Gilbert was a critical ally to Dr. Morris as he grew SIU into the innovative university that invigorated the region.”
Phil Gilbert’s family, including his sister, Pam, who is also an SIU graduate, were among those attending the ceremony, along with others including Glenn Poshard, SIU System president emeritus and former U.S. House representative; SIU System President Dan Mahony, SIU Carbondale Chancellor Austin Lane and John Jackson, a visiting professor with the SIU Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
SIU was ‘my father’s love’
The Gilbert family has a long connection to the university. John G. Gilbert, a Carbondale native, graduated from SIU in 1933 and went on to the University of Illinois School of Law before opening a private practice. His father, John P. Gilbert, graduated from then-Southern Illinois Normal College and later headed the school’s biology and agriculture department, and his mother, Dora Gray, also attended SIU. John G. Gilbert’s daughter and Phil Gilbert’s sister, Pam, graduated from SIU in 1964.
John G. Gilbert served as Jackson County state’s attorney and later as a state senator from 1960 to 1972. In addition to his work with Morris on SIU Carbondale, Gilbert was also instrumental in the creation of SIU Edwardsville and the SIU School of Medicine in Springfield.
Then-Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson noted in a 1987 letter to Gilbert that his efforts “were crucial” in establishing the Illinois Board of Higher Education, on which he served, and “the magnificent system of community colleges” in the state.
When John G. Gilbert died in 1989, then U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, who served in the Illinois General Assembly with Gilbert, also noted Gilbert’s contributions to education, and stated “SIU wouldn’t be what it is today without John Gilbert’s efforts.”
Artist close to the Gilbert family
Phil Gilbert said that Fink, who was recruited to SIU by Morris, surprised him with the portrait of his father a few months after John Gilbert’s death. Fink and his wife, Polly, were good friends with the Gilberts, and Phil Gilbert recalls Fink saying the lithograph — from a picture of Gilbert’s father — was for the kindness that John G. Gilbert had shown them throughout the years “and for all he has done for SIU, I felt I needed to do this.”
Fink came to SIU in 1961 and later became director of the then-School of Fine Art and dean of the then-College of Communications and Fine Art until his retirement in 1987. Fink died in 2006. His creations are included in major collections in the U.S., including the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Art Institute of Chicago and more.
Time to come ‘home’
The portrait has been in Judge Gilbert’s law office and later in his chambers in U.S. District Court in Benton since 1992. While Gilbert has no plans to retire from the bench, he discussed the portrait with his family, and the belief was it belongs to the university.
“This portrait needs to go back home. It needs to be at the university that he loved and dedicated his life to building,” Gilbert said.