By Mary Thurwachter
If you’ve ever enjoyed Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, you’ll want to thank Gordon J. Gilbert. He’s the fellow largely responsible for the center’s creation, although he’ll be the first to tell you that he had a lot of help along the way.
Gilbert was a science teacher at Boca Raton High School who shepherded his students “over to the ocean,” as he says, to study the tropical hardwood hammock which eventually became Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.
Now 80, Gilbert says he’s received numerous accolades for his work. He never took on the project for the kudos, though. Science, he says, is his passion.
Born in Ohio, Gilbert taught at Boca High School from 1965 to 1978, then continued with the school district as an environmental science teacher at Spanish River Park.
“Boca Raton was more environmentally concerned than many other cities,” he says. At his urging, the city took ownership of the 15-acre hardwood hammock in 1974. The nature center opened in 1984. Gilbert was the founding educator, director and its leading advocate.
Has the nature center evolved the way he imagined?
“Better,” the octogenarian says. He still serves on the board of directors and visits the center often. His daughter, granddaughter and three great-grandchildren (who live in Tennessee) have been there many, many times, too, he says.
One of his favorite stories, he says, is the one he tells kids about how the gumbo limbo tree, one of many types at the center, got its nickname. “It’s sometimes called the tourist tree,” he says.
“The first thing tourists do when they get here is to go to the beach. They stay way too long and their skin turns red and peeling — just like the bark of the gumbo limbo.”
Gordon J. Gilbert
Gilbert says there is a lot more history at the hammock than in any of the old buildings around. He speculates that Calusa Indians roamed the area hundreds of years ago.
Today, the center boasts nature trails, a 40-foot observation tower, aquariums, insect tank, butterfly garden and seasonal turtle walks. Kids of all ages continue to learn in Gilbert’s outdoor classroom.
Had the city not bought the land in the 1970s as part of a $13 million beach property purchase for Red Reef Park, and transformed it into the nature center, “we’d have high rises.” Gilbert says. “We’d
have a concrete jungle here.”
IF YOU GO
Gumbo Limbo Golf Classic: Hosted by American Financial and the Advisory Practice of Swinehart, Shea & Associates, the event features a four-person scramble format, special events on the course, prizes, player gifts and box lunches. Proceeds benefit the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.
When: Saturday, May 21. Reegistration begins at 11 a.m., Shotgun Start at 12:30 p.m. Open Bar, 6 p.m. Gordon Gilbert Honoree Awards dinner, dance, entertainment, raffles and silent auction, 7 p.m.
Where: Boca Greens Country Club, 19642 Trophy Drive, Boca Raton
More information: Kevin Ludke, 954-551-1956
Online registration: www.tournevents.com/gumbo