By Mary Hladky
As Gordon Gilbert’s 90th birthday on Jan. 27 drew near, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District asked for ideas on how to honor the beloved environmentalist who was instrumental in founding the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.
Dozens of district and city residents immediately threw their support behind creating a fitting tribute.
The result was a proclamation issued on Jan. 19, saying Gilbert “has devoted over 46 years to our community and has led efforts to preserve over 1,000 acres of green space.”
“His life and his advocacy for environmental education will transcend generations to come.”
That proclamation was presented to Gilbert at a gathering of family and friends at Sugar Sand Park on Jan. 23.
“Gordon is sort of like a north star and someone you could sail your ship by,” Commissioner Robert Rollins said as commissioners considered a tribute.
Mayor Scott Singer, joined by Deputy Mayor Andrea O’Rourke and council members Monica Mayotte and Yvette Drucker at the Walk of Fame at Royal Palm Place, issued another proclamation that declared Jan. 27 as Gordon Gilbert Day in Boca Raton.
“As the founder and longtime director of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, his work has led to the creation of one of the finest marine conservation sites anywhere,” Singer said. “His incredible 46 years as a city board member are only part of a life well lived as an educator, environmentalist and outstanding person.”
Other accolades poured forth, among them from Michele Peel, former president of the Friends of Gumbo Limbo, and Jim Miller, the current president.
Peel noted that while Gilbert is best known for his work on behalf of Gumbo Limbo, his impact on the Boca Raton community “is actually much deeper and longer lasting” because he advocated for acquiring land for public parks and nature preserves.
That is a key reason Boca Raton became known as a “city within a park.”
Miller also cited Gilbert’s years as a biology teacher at Boca Raton High School. He later taught environmental and marine science to third-, fifth- and seventh-graders at Spanish River Park.
“It always amazes me that people talk about how they took classes or took tours with Gordon, his involvement with their education,” Miller said.
Gumbo Limbo founder Gordon Gilbert walks with family and friends at the nature center during his 90th birthday celebration. He is accompanied by his daughter Sandi Stafford and her husband, Ronnie Stafford, left, and Friends of Gumbo Limbo board member Robyn Morigerato, right.
Gilbert served as a Beach and Park District commissioner from 1978 to 2008 and was reappointed in 2018 to the city’s Parks and Recreation Board for his 23rd two-year term.
Beach and Park District commissioners originally considered renaming Ocean Strand Park for Gilbert, an idea supported by at least 50 people who sent emails to the district or spoke up at its Jan. 4 meeting. O’Rourke was among them.
Commissioners backed off that idea over concerns that they were acting too quickly and that Gilbert has stronger connections to Gumbo Limbo.
“I was obviously disappointed,” Peel said, but she realized commissioners didn’t have much time to consider the idea ahead of Gilbert’s birthday.
Miller also favored the renaming but said he understood the commission’s reluctance to jump into that decision quickly.
There will be more opportunities to add to Gilbert’s honors, he said, including the possibility of additional recognition of his advocacy for Gumbo Limbo, where he served as the nature center’s first director.
A plaque honoring him already exists at Gumbo Limbo, which notes his teaching, evening tours that let people observe sea turtles nesting on the beach, and his “vision and initiative” in the acquisition of park land and nature preserves.