The famed historian Carl Becker once wrote that “everyman is his own historian.” Becker was trying to make the point that all of us share a responsibility for documenting our own lives and the lives of the communities where we live and work.
No individual epitomizes the spirit of this dictum more than Michael Gibson, who recently retired as director of the Center for Dubuque History at Loras College. His 37-year commitment to the preservation and protection of the past was recently recognized with a prestigious award from the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Although he’s best known for his work in Dubuque, Mike began his journey in Idaho and continued on to Iowa City where he spent a decade in the State Historical Society building at the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street.
He began as the business manager but quickly became the interlocutor between the director’s office and various SHSI departments. He also served as the book review editor of The Annals of Iowa and established the oral history program for SHSI.
New challenges called him from Iowa City to the recently established Center for Dubuque History. It’s not too much to say that Mike was the vital force in the growth and success of the Center for nearly forty years. He collected and preserved vital resources on the early history of the state. Hundreds of cubic feet of precious records and artifacts were saved from indifference and destruction because of Mike’s interest and ardor.
And the research community has responded in ways and in numbers not anticipated when Mike arrived on campus. On average the Center annually serves over 500 researchers in the reading room, responds to more than 1,800 e-mails, and answers more than 1.300 phone calls. Inquiries come from all over the state, the country and from Germany, Ireland, and Australia among other countries.
Thanks to Mike, the research room also became something of a classroom for Loras undergraduates, National History Day students, and even elementary school students. Adding to the numbers were more than a hundred student workers and interns who came for employment and experience and left with a real passion for the past.
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In addition to all the work Mike has done on behalf of local history, he also has been a leader in the state-wide preservation of historical records. He’s been a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board since it was established in the 1980s. In fact, Mike’s tenure is among the longest of any of the members of the other state historical records advisory boards in the nation.
We were blessed when Mike Gibson came to Iowa. It was a hard sell because he was an avid outdoorsman and loved the mountains of Idaho. Where, Mike asked, would he find a mountain in Iowa? Even though he never found one, there’s no question that his achievements on behalf of Iowa’s history and heritage have been mountainous.
Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch and serves with Mike Gibson on the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board.