Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University
This Month @ Moritz

Gib Reese '52: Energetic Steward of Family's Philanthropic Legacy

Distance should not defeat dreams. Mere miles should not put the possibility of a better, richer, more fulfilling life out of the reach of the young.

That's a basic tenet of John Gilbert "Gib" Reese's outlook on life, and he's put his money where his mouth is.

Gib Reese
Gib at his firm Reese, Pyle,
Drake & Meyer

Newspapers in the region, notably the Columbus Dispatch and the Advocate of Newark, refer to him as "philanthropist J. Gilbert Reese," like it was some kind of official title, and he wishes they would stop.

"I prefer philanderer," joked the Granville resident and Newark attorney.

"I've been lucky in terms of having a few bucks," Reese added dismissively.

Like it or not, the term philanthropist fits J. Gilbert Reese right down to the ground. From his memento-filled second-floor office in the Reese, Pyle, Drake and Meyer building on North Second Street in Newark, Ohio "Gib," as most people call him, oversees a giving empire that includes:

  • two separate foundations
  • an endowed chair in contract law at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law;
  • a residence hall at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.;
  • nearly 40 miles of bicycle trails that link communities throughout Licking County;
  • a $13.2-million technology center at OSU's Newark campus;
  • and a lasting educational legacy for generations to come in the place Gib Reese has called home practically all his life.

There's more, much more, and no end in sight for Reese, although he celebrated his 78th birthday on July 7.

J. Gilbert Reese may be in the autumn of his life, but it's looking like a long season.

"Gib's big philosophy has been that he's just determined to go as long as he can so that he can leave Licking County the best that he can, and he has tremendous high energy," said his wife of 52 years, Louella "Lou" Reese.

For his part, Reese said Lou keeps asking him when he plans to retire, but he can't. He just can't.

He blames it on longtime friend Howard LeFevre, a Newark trucking magnate and fellow philanthropist. LeFevre, Reese pointed out, is 96-and-a-half years old and still going strong.

"I can't have any self respect if I drop out before he does," Reese said.

J. Gilbert Reese was born in Newark into a well-off, practically privileged family, with well-educated people on both the paternal and maternal sides --particularly on the maternal side. Reese's banker father, the son of Welsh immigrants, graduated from Ohio State University, in large part because he was able to get to class using the High Street trolley from his family home on Long Street.

Reese''s mother was the daughter of a wholesale grocer in Newark. She attended the prestigious Abbott Academy girls' preparatory school in Andover, Mass., and went on to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., then and now one of the nation's leading liberal arts institutions for women.

Today, Gib Reese wonders what would have happened if his parents' lives had somehow been switched, if his father had grown up in Newark and his mother in Columbus. Assuredly, the children on the maternal side of the equation would have been able to afford the very kind and level of education they received. But just as assuredly, Reese feels, none of the five children in his father's family, all of whom graduated from OSU, would have even had the chance to attend college if they had lived 35 miles away from what was then the university's only campus.

If that had been the case, Reese doesn't know where he would be, and that uncertainty has been a motivating force in much of his life.

Reese himself attended the renowned Phillips Academy prep school in Andover, Mass. He graduated a year behind a fellow they all called "Poppy" back in those days, although he is better known now as George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States and father of the current chief executive.

Reese graduated from Phillips Academy in 1943, during the height of World War II. He sought to join the Army, but poor eyesight made him 4-F. His father's intercession with the draft board was required for the 18-year-old to get any chance at all at military service.

"I talked my way into getting into the Medical Corps," Reese recalled. "In those days I was kind of day-dreaming of arm-wrestling Erwin Rommel. That never happened."

Rommel, nicknamed "Desert Fox," was a famed field marshal in the German Army's Afrika Korps.

Instead, Reese served as a scrub nurse at a large Army hospital. This led him to briefly consider becoming a doctor after the war, but instead he stuck with his early career ambition of studying law. Reese graduated from Moritz College of Law in 1952 and was admitted to the state bar association that same year. He considered launching his practice in Toledo or Cleveland or even in Columbus, but in the end followed in the footsteps of his mother's family and brought his education back home. Reese became the third member of a very old, very established law firm that had many major clients.

"For Newark, Ohio, that was big," he said. "It was the only firm in town with more than two attorneys."

In 1961, the firm's founder died and Reese, who had launched his own solo practice and was serving as Newark law director, was invited to return as senior partner. The firm has undergone changes and additions over the years, but Reese remains its senior partner.

Gib Reese
Gib's current term on the Ohio Board of Regents continues through
September 2005

A few years before that, sometime in 1957, Reese and his friend LeFevre were the moving force behind the establishment of an Ohio State University branch campus in Licking County. It was just one of many collaborations between the two.

"They're an awesome pair," Lou Reese said of her husband and LeFevre. "As long as Gib has Howard, he's going to be doing these things. What one doesn't think of, the other one does. It's very exciting."

"OSU-Newark started with 80 students taking night classes at the high school," LeFevre told the Coshocton Tribune in a May 9 story. "Who could have ever dreamed that today we would serve 4,500 students or more on our own campus."

"The need is there," Reese said.

The branch campus has made a university education more readily available to young people in Licking County, particularly, in Reese's opinion, young single mothers who might otherwise be forever caught in a series of dead-end jobs.

"You're missing a huge volume of talent if you don't educate them," he said.

"It gave these kids a real chance to improve themselves," Lou Reese commented.

Giving back to the community, Reese maintains, is a family legacy with him.

"My father was very, very helpful to a large number of people," Reese said.

Reese helped an old family friend, local pharmacist Thomas J. Evans, whom he knew as "Uncle Tommy," although they are not related, to start a foundation in 1965 that has seen to the charitable needs in and around Licking County ever since. In addition, he and his wife have operated the Gilbert Reese Family Foundation since 1994. The combination of the two can be exhausting, Lou Reese admitted.

"As soon as you get through with one project, you've got to be on the ball and ready for the next," she said. "We have to keep going. You don't have any choice. You cannot sit back and say, 'Well, we won't do anything this year.' It doesn't work that way."

J. Gilbert Reese, who has served on the Ohio Board of Regents since 1996, was named a Distinguished Alumnus of the Ohio State University College of Law in 1979 and in 2000 received the OSU Community Service Award.

Gib Reese admits that he has been accused of holding conservative political views. It's a charge he refutes.

"I am amazingly moderate," he said.

Reese does revere the memory of the late Gov. James Rhodes. All of Ohio's governors, Reese maintains, all the way back to the very first one in 1803 had an opportunity to expand higher education, but none of them truly did until Rhodes came along and "jammed down the throats of the legislators" measures dear to the heart of not only the late governor but also Reece.

Rhodes, governor from 1962 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1982, is credited with creating a "top-flight vocational education system, coupled with a network of community colleges and university branch campuses that put higher education 'within 30 miles of every boy and girl in Ohio," longtime Dispatch statehouse reporter Lee Leonard wrote in a story that ran March 5, 2001, the day after Rhodes' death at 91.

"Jim Rhodes just did a hell of a job," Reese said admiringly.

Many people might say that John Gilbert Reese has done a hell of a job, too, whether he's called philanthropist or philanderer or just caring member of the community.

His wife, for one, would say just that.

"I think Gib just feels that when you've been very lucky and you have done well yourself, it's a lot more fun to do things for other people and to make the place where you have succeeded into a better place," Lou Reese said. "I feel very strongly about that, too. How much does one need for oneself?" It comes back to that.

"We're very comfortable in our skins."

Excerpted from an article that first appeared in This Week on December 4, 2003 and printed with permission of the author, Kevin Parks.