Coastal Star: Visionary environmentalist might be called a force of nature

Gordon Gilbert stands between the trunks of a gumbo limbo tree at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, which he helped found in 1984 in Boca Raton. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Steve Plunkett

In the next several weeks, Gordon J. Gilbert, the visionary behind the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, will judge a professional barbecue contest, attend his umpteenth meeting of Boca Raton’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and be a guest of honor at the 50th reunion of Boca Raton High School’s Class of 1968.

“I still stay a little bit active in a lot of things,” said Gilbert, 87, who started taking Boca High students on field trips to the barrier island in 1965, the year he moved to the city, before any of the island had been turned into a park.

Almost immediately, Gilbert joined other like-minded residents in a crusade to save the undeveloped acreage from becoming high-rise condos. Their efforts resulted in a series of bond issues that financed the purchases of Spanish River, Red Reef and South Beach parks.

“There was a lot of us that worked diligently on that. And there were some people that called us names because that would raise their taxes. But oh well,” he recalled.

Gilbert taught biology at Boca High until 1976, then transitioned into teaching environmental and marine science to third-, fifth- and seventh-graders in a picnic shelter at Spanish River Park. Eight years later, with help from the city, the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District and the Palm Beach County School District, he opened the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.

“I never dreamed it would blossom into what it is today.”

Gumbo Limbo, where he stayed until he retired in 2003, was built in part to keep people from trampling the plants and animals that live on the island. The facility at Red Reef Park is on the largest West Indian hardwood hammock between Boca Raton and south Miami-Dade County, he said.

“We felt that if we had a nature center, that people would come and enjoy it, but they wouldn’t meander at will through it and just soon destroy it. So that’s why we had pathways for them to follow.”

Along with teaching, Gilbert served as a commissioner or chairman of the Beach & Parks District from 1978 to 2008 and was reappointed in July to the city’s Parks and Recreation board for a 23rd two-year term.

“I know my background is an asset to the board and definitely for the future. I love my city,” he wrote on his advisory board application.

Gilbert credits his childhood on a farm in Fairfield, Ohio, to his eventually choosing biology as his college major.

“Growing up in the country, as a country boy, I used to spend hours in the woods, just noticing the different animals, the different things. I could just pass the time away there,” he said.

Gilbert considers himself a laid-back person without an enemy in the world.

“There may be some people I don’t like as much as others, but they’ll never hear it from me.”

Since retiring from teaching, he has become a “master barbecue judge” and member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and the Florida BBQ Association.

“I go all over the country and judge barbecue,” he said.

He met his current “lady friend,” real estate agent Connie Smith, at a ballroom dance class when they were paired up because they were the only two singles there. His wife of 54 years, Pollye, died in 2008.

A fall from a bicycle last September left him with pins in a fractured hip and reliance on a walking cane, but that hasn’t stopped his travels.

In August he visited a great-granddaughter in Tennessee before she started college, and on Sept. 1 he planned to evaluate the taste and tenderness of various offerings at the Big Belly BBQ Battle in Davenport, near Kissimmee.

“The professional tour — it’s not like going here to one of these places. On the professional tour it’s got to be perfect,” he said. 

Some of Gilbert’s many accomplishments are cited on this plaque at Gumbo Limbo

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