Leon Gibbs '63: International Businessman Opens Doors for Others
Issue   |   Fri, 10/20/2017 - 02:12
Photos courtesy of Leon Gibbs ’63
Despite growing up near Wesleyan in Middletown, Conn., Gibbs decided to attend Amherst on the advice of his high school dean.

Gibbs has spent his life pushing boundaries. He entered Amherst in 1959 as one of the only African Americans in his class. Then, Gibbs opted to pursue a career in international business, an unusual choice at the time for both an Amherst graduate and an African American. With this background, one might expect to hear a story of conflict and controversy. However, that is not Gibbs’ story. Instead, he attributes his success to hard work and quiet dedication, while his overwhelming gratitude and generosity is evident through a new scholarship he co-sponsors, the Asa J. Davis Prize, which is awarded annually to a student who has done exceptional work on African and black diaspora history.

Trading “Little Three” Towns

Gibbs grew up in Middletown, Conn., only three blocks away from the Wesleyan campus. He attended Middletown High School and, as the third-ranked student in his high school class, felt pressured to attend Wesleyan.

“They kind of recruited me, as they do nowadays with football, but I was not an athlete,” he said. “I was more of a scholar.”

His high school dean, however, knew distinguished Amherst dean Eugene S. Wilson ’29 and encouraged Gibbs to look at Amherst. Gibbs visited the campus and liked what he saw, so he decided to apply and, upon gaining acceptance, to attend.

In 1959, Gibbs was one of only five African-American students to enter Amherst in a class of more than 250. By the time he graduated, two had dropped out, leaving Gibbs, Williams Davis and Hugh Price (author of “This African American Life”) as the only three African Americans in the Class of 1963. Gibbs also entered Amherst from a public school, while most students in the class came from private institutions.

“There were no support groups or any of the things that people talk about today when it comes to African Americans on campuses,” Davis said.

Far from feeling out of place, however, Gibbs thrived throughout his four years at Amherst. He was active in the Lord Jeff Society, a group that met incoming athletic teams and welcomed them to campus.

Live music was popular among the fraternities at the Five Colleges, and Gibbs was the leader of a band, playing guitar and bass. He played all over New England, opening for saxophonist Cannonball Adderley at the University of Connecticut on one occasion while making some money through his appearances.

A psychology major, Gibbs opted to enter business school instead of pursuing his master’s degree, an unusual path for an Amherst graduate at the time.

“Business? It was almost like a bad word,” he recalled.

After receiving a scholarship from Columbia, Gibbs enrolled in the MBA program. Once again, he was one of the few African Americans in his class. Still, Gibbs had few problems as he studied international business. Harold Flowers, a classmate at Columbia, recalled that Gibbs was both mature and focused, and that Gibbs worked evenings in order to pay for his education.

A Small Town Boy’s Dream

Upon graduating from business school, Gibbs first worked in consumer product advertising, promoting and marketing for pharmaceutical company Warner Lambert.
He received his first taste of international travel through consulting with Warner Lambert associates in Latin America and went to Pfizer after two years.

Gibbs rose to the role of product manager at Pfizer. He was, once again, one of few black people in such a role in corporate America. At the time when he worked for these companies from 1964 to 1966, much of the Civil Rights Movement had not yet taken complete hold.

Flowers, the first black person to work in IBM’s finance division, called Gibbs a pioneer. The ’60s, he claimed, opened the corporate experience for African Americans.
“Wherever you went, you were the only guy,” Flowers said. “You were the only African American there.”

Still, Gibbs did not feel he was treated unfairly.

“[I] never ran into any discrimination that I could recall, never ran into any problems, because I always worked hard, kept my nose clean and was a good employee,” he said.

Going International

After having a baby with his wife, Dorris, Gibbs began working for Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J.

Identified as a top candidate for management, he traveled around the world as an internal consultant for Johnson & Johnson. With a presence in 68 countries, Johnson & Johnson provided Gibbs the opportunity to travel throughout the world. Eventually, however, fatigue set in for Gibbs, and he looked for a more settled role.

A few years later, Gibbs assumed management of Johnson & Johnson’s operations in Puerto Rico, becoming the first African American in the company’s history to run their operations outside of the U.S. states.
The company’s chairman then asked Gibbs to take a leave of absence and work on former president Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Commission on Executive Exchange, a program where government employees would work in the private sector and employees of private companies worked in government.

Here, Gibbs was assigned to the American embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, where he helped promote trade of Jamaican-made goods and products with the United States, primarily furniture. He brought Jamaican executives to American factories in North Carolina, where they could learn about American production methods, and also met Reagan in the White House.

Gibbs then returned to Johnson & Johnson and assumed the position of general manager in Panama. In charge of five companies in Central America, Gibbs found himself living in Panama during the dictatorship of Manuel Antonio Noriega while the Nicaraguan Revolution raged nearby.

Perhaps Gibbs’ most remarkable trait is his ability to take on seemingly difficult situations and easily navigate them, almost to the point of making them seem mundane.

“Those were some very tough situations, but I succeeded,” he said simply of his time in Panama.

After 22 years of working for Johnson & Johnson, with eight of them spent overseas, Gibbs retired from the company. He went into franchising for a few years before retiring completely in 2005.

Giving Back to Amherst

Gibbs came back to Amherst during the late 1970’s and met Professor Asa J. Davis. Davis joined Amherst’s faculty in 1970 and taught at the college for 22 years. During his distinguished career, Davis established the college’s Department of Black Studies.

For years, Gibbs had considered ways to give back to Amherst as a “thank you” for the enormous impact the school had on his life. He reached out to his classmates Price and Davis, looking to set up a scholarship Davis’ name. For their 55th reunion, the three managed to settle on a scholarship and Gibbs plans to donate over $1 million to the fund.

The prize’s official title is “The Asa J. Davis Prize for Academic Distinction in the History of Africa and the Black Diaspora,” and the college’s history department gives it annually to “the student who has demonstrated outstanding achievement in the study of the history of Africa and the Black Diaspora and whose work best reflects the comprehensive interest of Asa Davis in historical and cultural contacts between Africa, the Old World and the Americas,” according to the college’s website.

Deriving its funds from a permanent endowment, the scholarship will provide financial aid to students of color with a demonstrated need, preferably in their junior or senior year with a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Students with an interest in attending graduate school for international business or political science will receive additional preference.

Gibbs hoped to add attract more Amherst students to his chosen field with this final part. “We need more young people to think globally,” he said.

In donating to this scholarship, Gibbs is once again a trailbrazer, becoming the first African American to create a $1 million endowed fund in the college’s history.

Flowers thinks the scholarship and Gibbs’ generous donation speaks volumes about Gibbs’ character.

“He didn’t forget where he came from,” Flowers said. “He didn’t lose his sense of perspective.”

After years of pioneering in every field he entered, Gibbs’ focus is now on improving his golf game — a relaxation that is well earned.