Forever Duke: In Memoriam

Farewell to a scientist, a trailblazing professor, and a show-business scion
March 15, 2016

A forward-looking public scientist

John Howard “Jack” Gibbons Ph.D. ’54 was a likeable guy. During his 1993 confirmation hearing to become the science adviser to President Bill Clinton, members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation spent two hours telling him how pleased they were he was before them. Two days later the Senate confirmed him unanimously. Afterward, Fredrick Seitz, a physicist who founded the Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank, said Gibbons was “such a nice person you really can’t say anything bad about him.” And Scientific American published a profile about him titled “The Nicest Guy in Washington.”

That Gibbons, who died on July 18, 2015, at eighty-six from complications of a stroke, earned such a reputation among Washington’s power elite made it more than a character trait. His charming, country-gentleman demeanor was a gift and one much needed in his career as a public scientist during a time when there was great upheaval in the federal science establishment.

“A compelling argument could be made that my primary role is to illuminate the issues that matter and to build a network to support them,” Gibbons once told The New York Times.

Among the issues that mattered to the physicist were the testing of nuclear arms, which Gibbons worked to end; in 1996 President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty to halt the development of new warheads. Through one of his primary initiatives, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, he argued for more efficient cars, which led to the development of hybrid vehicles. He helped turn an American plan for an orbiting space station into a global effort that included the Russians and is known as the International Space Station.

“Science is still the wellspring of new options. How else are we going to face the issues of the twenty-first century on things like the environment, health, security, food, and energy?” he said in a New York Times interview. He was Clinton’s adviser until 1998.

Gibbons was born in Harrisburg, Virginia. His father was a lawyer and the treasurer of Madison College, the forerunner of James Madison University. His older brother, William Conrad Gibbons, who also recently died, was a historian of the Vietnam War.

After graduating from Randolph-Macon College and earning a doctorate in physics from Duke, Gibbons worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for fifteen years. There, his scientific interests included studying how stars produce the heavy elements found throughout the universe. In 1973, during the first big energy crisis, he was appointed the first director of the federal Office of Energy Conservation. Before joining the Clinton administration, he directed the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, where his teams of researchers produced reports on acid rain, Alzheimer’s disease, missile defense, and other issues.

After leaving the government, Gibbons worked with Population Action International, the Virginia Climate Change Commission, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is survived by Mary Hobart Gibbons, his wife of sixty years; two daughters; and eight grandchildren. Another daughter died in 2014. Rachel Davies ’72, A.M. ’89 is a cousin.

Securing a place for women's stories

When Mary Anne Ferguson ’38, A.M. ’40 began teaching a literature course that focused on the representations of women, she had misgivings about the material.

It was the late 1960s, and much of what she taught cast women in unfavorable light. “Maybe my students would have been much better off not knowing that in the eyes of most male writers, women who were not content to be quiet, ineffectual, silly, were likely to be portrayed as non-feminine, unnatural, destructive,” she wrote in a 1972 essay.

So Ferguson took action. She put aside the original course material and focused on women’s biographies. And then, in 1973, she published Images of Women in Literature. The textbook, updated and reissued four times, helped solidify Ferguson’s place as a pioneer in the field of women’s studies.

The lifelong teacher died on April 9, 2015, at ninety-six in Pittsburgh from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

She was born Mary Anne Heyward in Charleston, South Carolina, and grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. She earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in literature and a master’s in English with a focus in poetry at Duke before earning her Ph.D. in medieval studies from Ohio State University.

After teaching in universities in New York, Connecticut, Ohio, and North Carolina, she joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1966 and taught until 1986. She also chaired the English department and was a professor emerita of English and women’s studies. Her husband, Alfred R. Ferguson, was a Ralph Waldo Emerson Scholar at the same university and taught American studies. They’d met in the stacks at the Yale University library and married in 1948. He died in 1974. They had three daughters, two of whom also became English professors. They also share seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Ferguson loved poetry and often recited verses from her favorite poets. One of them was A.E. Housman, who wrote:

Into my heart on air that kills

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

Show business was in his blood

Michael Murrow Stevens ’89 was given that middle name as a tribute to the legendary broadcaster and U.S. Information Agency director Edward R. Murrow, who had once hired Stevens’ father as head of the agency’s film division.

So, perhaps it was in some ways inevitable that Stevens would be interested in journalism. He worked in that industry in France.

But it was a brief stint. There was another legacy in Stevens’ life. His family’s show-business roots date to nineteenth-century theater and the silent- film era. His grandfather, George Stevens, received Oscars for directing the movies A Place in the Sun and Giant, both starring Elizabeth Taylor. His father, George Stevens Jr., is the founding director of the American Film Institute and cofounder and producer of The Kennedy Center Honors.

Which is why, starting in the early 1990s, Stevens began his own performing-arts career. Working with his father, he helped produce AFI lifetime salutes to movie stars and directors. He directed several Christmas in Washington variety-show productions for the TNT cable network. He co-produced and had writing credits for every Kennedy Center Honors show since 2003 and shared five prime-time Emmy Awards for the specials. For HBO, he directed and co-produced an adaptation of his father’s Broadway play Thurgood, about the civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court justice, and shared a daytime Emmy for co-producing We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.

Stevens did some film production work, too, including The Thin Red Line, the Oscar-nominated film directed by Terrence Malick. In 2013, he directed, co-produced, and cowrote Herblock: The Black & White, a documentary about the late Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert L. Block.

That the documentary was well-received was pleasing to Stevens. A native of Washington—born November 21, 1966—he met the artist in high school. “I was alone in my liberal thinking at the all-boys prep school I went to outside of Washington,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic, “so Herblock was a private pleasure for me, or an opportunity to point to it and offer to my friends— and Reagan supporter—‘Maybe one day you might see the world like this guy does.’ I doubt I made a dent. But by some time after college, most of my buddies had come around.”

It wasn’t the only personal connection he made with an acclaimed figure through his work. He also got to know veteran soul-singer Bettye LaVette.

“I can say that Michael was a consummate producer. He created situations for me to work with,” she says. “He most certainly created the three biggest things that ever happened in my career.”

Stevens invited LaVette to sing “Love, Reign O’er Me” for The Who at The Kennedy Center Honors, then put her before her largest audience ever at President Obama’s pre-inaugural concert. He also helped her put together a best-selling album, her “favorite” she says, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.

“For these things, I am eternally grateful,” says LaVette.

Stevens was forty-eight when he died on October 15, 2015. His survivors include his wife, Alexandra Gifford; two children, John and Lily; his parents; a brother; and a sister.