Amherst Magazine

The Very Reverend Thomas W. Gibbs ’51

The Very Reverend Thomas W. Gibbs ’51 died July 19, 2010.
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THOMAS WOODROW GIBBS III ’51

The Very Rev. Thomas W. Gibbs III had delivered two superb Sunday sermons as dean, All Saints Cathedral, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, this July. His friend, Bishop Gumbs, remarked, “He went home after services on Sunday afternoon, sat down in his clerical attire to read and died in his chair. He would have had it no other way.”

            At Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass., Gibbs studied for his graduate degree. In the Virgin Islands, Tom became the legendary headmaster of the Episcopal Prep School. Many alumni, including the governor, greeted Father Gibbs warmly while Bill and Chris Purdy were visiting him.

            At Amherst, Tom was the first African-American to join a social fraternity, Phi Alpha Psi. Gibbs was active in track, student council, Sphinx and Phi Beta Kappa. Nebs Blaisdell was Tom’s roommate at Phi Psi, a remarkable community which deserves a high level of respect for their initiative, better appreciated in that era than now. 

            At Evanston High, Charlie Tritschler and Tom first became allies carrying mail long hours, summers and winters, to save for college. As delegate to international conferences, Tom became a poster boy for Scout diversity in the U.S.A. In military service, Gibbs performed assigned domestic intelligence duty, which raised trying matters of conscience for him.

            Over the phone, after Obama’s election, Tom recounted watching the acceptance speech, his tears of joy, and his felt need to pray for his fellow black. Tom envisioned the trials to come after the cheers. Gibbs was loyal to his family, church, schooling and race with the steadfast commitment befitting his vocation. The college is honored by its many distinguished African-American graduates. Amherst 1951 salutes one of its own pioneer classmates upon his death.

—Nebs Blaisdell ’51
—Bill Purdy ’51
—Charlie Tritschler ’51

The Phi Psi Affair: “Unfraternal Conduct”

The obituary for Thomas Gibbs ’51 (In Memory, Fall 2010) contains only a brief allusion to an important event in Amherst history, an event in which Gibbs played the central role. In the spring of 1948 the undergraduate members of Phi Kappa Psi, the Amherst chapter of a national fraternity, issued an invitation to Tom Gibbs, a black freshman, to join the fraternity. Although Phi Kappa Psi was not one of the five Amherst fraternities that at that time still had exclusionary rules, the leaders of the national organization did not react favorably when they learned of the Amherst chapter’s intentions. After some not-so-cordial negotiations during the following summer and fall, the Amherst students notified the national organization of Phi Kappa Psi that they were determined to proceed with Gibbs’ initiation. At that point the national organization suspended the Amherst chapter, which reorganized as Phi Alpha Psi, a local fraternity. Three weeks later Gibbs, together with the other sophomore pledges, was formally initiated into Phi Alpha Psi.

Although it now seems hard to believe that an invitation to a black student to join an Amherst fraternity could cause such a furor, the “Phi Psi Affair” was national news. In The New York Times alone that fall there appeared at least six news items on the topic and an editorial, which read in part: “The Amherst College football team beat Williams on Saturday by a score of 13 to 7, but it may be that another sort of victory, won on the Amherst campus on Friday, will be longer remembered. Until Friday, Amherst had a chapter of the national Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. On Friday that chapter was suspended by the national executive committee for ‘unfraternal conduct.’... In this episode we see the real meaning of a liberal education. An Amherst degree has always been respected. It will be more respected now.”

Robert H. Romer ’52
Amherst

 

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