Hometown Hero: Gordon Gilbert

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Gordon Gilbert at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center / Photo by Aaron Bristol

We salute a marine biologist whose love of all things ocean helped preserve the ecology of Boca Raton

Gordon Gilbert came to Boca Raton in the summer of 1965 to teach biology at Boca Raton High School. Having grown up on a farm in Fairfield, Ohio, he says he always loved being outdoors and “just fell in love with knowing all the plants and animals.” He says when he moved to Florida, “it was totally different,” and he was fascinated by the foliage, the sea turtles and “everything here that we find along the ocean.”

The fascination with the coastal environment and marine biology that Gilbert cultivated only grew over the years. He taught at Boca High until 1978, when he says “I actually started my work over on the ocean.”

His “work over on the ocean”—teaching Palm Beach County third, fifth and seventh graders about coastal ecology in one of Spanish River Park’s picnic shelters—ultimately transformed into a vision for educating people about the wonders of the marine coastline, a vision that ultimately became Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in 1984.

Now, almost 40 years later, on Gilbert’s 90th birthday, the City of Boca Raton proclaimed January 27 “Gordon Gilbert Day.”

HOW IT ALL CAME ABOUT:

A lot of things happened in the early 1970s that led up to starting Gumbo Limbo. It opened in 1984 but we actually started thinking about it back in the early 1970s. I really couldn’t get people interested until we started a bond issue in 1974 and bought Red Reef Park. I found out if you don’t get involved you are not going to get things done. That’s when I really got involved in other things; I was put on the Parks and Rec board in 1974—and this is my 47th year on that board.

One thing led to another, and by 1978 I was elected to the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks District. I was kind of allowed to bring things along, and finally we got different people involved, including the state and local government, that led up to the opening of Gumbo Limbo in 1984. They made me the director. Although the city owned the land, the city was not involved in the running of it—they turned it over to the Palm Beach County School System, which I still worked for the whole time I was the director.

WHY GUMBO LIMBO IS IMPORTANT:

It’s a very unique area—it’s called a tropical hardwood hammock. Back in the 1970s, it was the largest hammock between Boca and South Dade County. I retired from Gumbo Limbo in 2003, and I hope I have turned a few minds toward the preservation of the area that we now call Red Reef Park. We’ve got some good people who have taken over now.

LAST WORD:

I have received many awards, but that topped it when they named the day after me. I love the City of Boca Raton; I really do. And especially Gumbo Limbo.

This story is from the April 2021 of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.