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#42 The Gibson Political Dynasty

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Leaders & Legacy

In the first half of the 20th century, there were two Ernest W. Gibsons who served as U.S. senators from Vermont—a father-son team, both of whom were graduates of Norwich University. Both also served as trustees of Norwich University and received honorary degrees from their alma mater.

Gibson the Elder

Gibson Sr.Ernest W. Gibson, Sr. studied science and literature at Norwich University and held the rank of 2nd lieutenant in the Corps of Cadets. While at Norwich, he honed his speaking and writing skills, publishing polished and provocative essays in the student-published Reveille. In 1893, he defeated future Congressman and Norwich President Charles Plumley in the Sheldon speaking contest.

After his graduation from Norwich, Gibson, Sr. studied law at the University of Michigan. In 1899 he formed a law partnership in Brattleboro, Vermont, and was elected to the state senate in 1906. By 1912, he had joined the insurgent wing of the Republican Party led by Theodore Roosevelt. He went to the Republican presidential nominating convention in 1912 as a supporter of Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” faction. When Roosevelt walked out of the convention, Gibson, Sr. accompanied him.

Throughout this time, Gibson, Sr. also served in the Vermont National Guard. He was activated for military service in 1915 during the Mexican border crisis, and when the U.S. joined the Allies during World War I, Gibson was sent to France with the American Expeditionary Force.

After he returned to Vermont as a war hero, Gibson ran for the U.S. Congress in 1923, winning the election and serving in Congress until his death in 1940, first in the House and later in the Senate. He was politically aligned with Vermont Governor George Aiken, a vigorous champion of farmers and blue collar workers, who contested the business interests that had long been dominant in Vermont politics.

Gibson the Younger

Gibson Jr.The younger Ernest Gibson, Norwich Class of 1923, was a highly competitive pole vaulter on the Norwich varsity track team. After graduation, Gibson, Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps with a law degree and a practice in Brattleboro. When Gibson, Sr. died in 1940, his son was appointed by Governor George Aiken to serve the remainder of his father’s term in Washington, though he declined to run for additional terms. It was after World War II, as governor of Vermont, that he would make his political mark.

During World War II, Gibson, Jr. deployed with the 43rd Infantry Division to the South Pacific. The war wounds he received there became a matter of national attention when the media circulated a photograph showing him swathed in bloodstained bandages. Gibson attained the rank of colonel and was cited for meritorious conduct, receiving the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit among other military awards. While serving as an intelligence officer in New Georgia, he received a green coconut containing the note from Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy pleading for the rescue of the survivors of PT 109.

Ernest Gibson, Jr. returned from the war a hero and ready to assume his father’s political mantle. He successfully challenged incumbent Republican Governor Mortimer Proctor in 1946, thumbing his nose at the “corporate kingmakers” who had been choosing governors from a back room.

Gibson, Jr. energized and transformed Vermont government. The liberal agenda of the Gibson administration generated constant conflict with conservative Republicans, but he remained popular in spite of these tensions. Near the end of his second term, in 1950, Gibson resigned to accept an appointment from Harry Truman to the Federal District Court bench.

Both Ernest Gibsons made their alma mater proud. Both served their community and their country with distinction, and each left an indelible mark on Vermont politics.

Adapted from an article by Gary Lord published in the Summer 2001 Norwich Record.