Sara Smiley Smith and Gordon Geballe enjoying the breeze on Commencement day 2019

The “Geballe” Era

YSE Associate Dean for International Engagement Gordon Geballe is retiring after a nearly 50-year affiliation with the School and Yale. He is known for always keeping students at the center, his ability to build community and befriend everyone in the room, and his dedication to New Haven.

By Dylan Walsh ’11 MEM

Gordon Geballe ’81 PhD arrived in New Haven accompanying Shelley, his wife, as she began her first year at Yale Law School. The year was 1972. Neither had connections to the city or the university, but they settled in, and Geballe, who had a degree in economics from Berkeley, found his way to the art history lectures of the dynamic Professor Vincent Scully ‘40, ’47 MA, ’49 PhD. Geballe sat in the back of the auditorium; the lectures often ended with a standing ovation.

Gordon Geballe speaking at his retirement celebration

Gordon Geballe speaking at his retirement celebration in May 2022.

He spent time reading the letters of John Muir, which were housed in the Beinecke Rare Book Library. He eventually joined up with a small group of plant physiologists. “I was interested in plants,” he says. The more he learned, the more he wanted to know. At Shelley’s urging, he applied to a doctoral degree program in the Graduate School of Arts and Science and began research under the supervision of Arthur Galston, the Eaton Professor of Botany in the department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and research scientist, Ruth Satter.

After his PhD, Geballe began a postdoc with Professor William Smith ’63 MF in Greeley Lab. The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, where acid rain was discovered in the U.S., was in full swing at the time, directed by Professor Herb Bormann, whom Geballe befriended. Shelley was working as a civil rights attorney at the ACLU of Connecticut and the two of them, by then, owned a home in the coastal town of Branford; they had started a family. The region was coming to feel like home and, somewhat to Geballe’s surprise, “we stayed on in New Haven forever.”

Now, after nearly 50 years affiliated with the university, 41 of them with the Yale School of the Environment, Geballe is retiring. It’s been, he says, “a phenomenal time.” He has been there through the tenure of eight deans. He has seen the school expand. He has watched the construction of Kroon Hall and he has witnessed the school’s transition from “School of Forestry & Environmental Studies” to “School of the Environment.” He possesses a deep institutional knowledge of YSE and Yale more generally. As spring gives way to summer, he has begun the final task of clearing out his office and, with a few exceptions — a botanical print that his mother gave him, a faded photograph from his uncle, and a black-and-white photograph by Javier Roman Nives ‘19 MEM — he is handing off what he can to students, faculty, and staff.

“Over my 40 years here,” he says, “I don’t have a single regret.”

A Method of Saying “Yes”

Geballe’s first foray into teaching at Yale came during his postdoc. Herb Bormann and YSE’s acting dean, William Smith, called Geballe in for a meeting. They asked if he would be interested in partnering with doctoral student John Wargo 81 MPhil, '84 PhD, now Professor at YSE and director of Yale’s environmental studies major, to reinvigorate the undergraduate introductory environmental studies course, which had been dormant for some time. Geballe said yes, and was hired as a lecturer — a faculty appointment he has held to this day. (Geballe plans to continue teaching two undergraduate courses after retirement, one in the fall of 2022 and the second in the spring of 2023.)

“My method in teaching was to say, ‘yes’ whenever students walked in and asked for a course,” he says. “One of the threads connecting my work over all these years has been an enthusiasm for trying something new.”

Geballe with his class in Haiti

Students in Geballe's course on Sustainable Development in Post-Disaster Context engage in experiential learning during a spring 2011 class trip to Haiti.

When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, for instance, a group of students from YSE and the School of Public Health approached Geballe and proposed a class about Haiti and its complicated environmental history. Though not an expert on the country, Geballe agreed to collaborate on the development of a course. He sought someone in the university who might be able to help and eventually found Gary Désir ‘80 MD, a professor at the school of medicine and Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity who was born in Haiti. They partnered for five years on what became “Development Projects in Haiti,” an immensely popular course offered to both graduate and undergraduate students that included a springtime field trip to Haiti. This class evolved to become “Haiti Towards Sustainable Development,” a first-year seminar for Yale College students.

This process, says Geballe, is “illustrative” of his time here — a commitment to building partnerships across the university that support simultaneously what students want to learn and what they want to do.

Teaching the World

“Gordon is renowned in the community for being accessible to students,” says Gus Speth ‘64, ‘69 JD, who served as dean of YSE from 1999 to 2009. “He believed deeply in experiences alongside book learning. It was very good for me to see him at work when I first came to Yale.”

People planting a tree

Geballe (at right) in 2015, helps plant a tree on Yale's campus in memory of Wangari Maathai. 

In 2004, for instance, Maria Ivanova ’99 MESc/MA, ’06 PhD and Geballe co-taught a course on the United Nations Environment Programme. The class of roughly 30 students studied the institution for one semester, and then, with the generous support of James Leitner, a 1975 graduate of Yale College, the students traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, where they spent one week presenting their findings to UNEP’s governing council and one week in a village with Wangari Maathai ‘04 Hon and the Greenbelt Movement.

“We were environmentalists in suits, and then environmentalists in sandals,” says Ivanova, who this summer will become Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. (She currently is a professor and director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston.) “Because of that work we were able to bridge those two realities, to integrate them into our lives. This is what our school gives, and what Gordon nurtured: the ability for all of us to live in and move between different realities — the local and the global, the biosphere and world of governance.”

This is what our school gives, and what Gordon nurtured: the ability for all of us to live in and move between different realities — the local and the global, the biosphere and world of governance.”

Maria Ivanova ’99 MESc/MA, ’06 PhD 

For Geballe, this interaction was captured in his work on the book “Redesigning the American Lawn,” which he coauthored with Bormann and Diana Balmori. The project, which he described as one of the highlights of his career, started as a class examining the tightly overlapping systems of humans, and then “all this stuff we call nature,” Geballe says.

“I don’t think Gordon fully realizes the impact he has had on so many YSE alumni who as students were able to travel to international conferences, such as COP, in large part thanks to his advocacy and influence,” says Dean Indy Burke. “They have told me what a significant impact those experiences have had on their careers and how they continue to impact their environmental work to this day.”

Geballe’s orientation toward experience is rooted in the fact that YSE is considered both a graduate and a professional school. The “professional” side, he insists, means the school must train people to go out and practice what they’ve learned. He has always been a strong proponent of hiring professors who blend scholarship and practice. He also has long encouraged students to take work study programs in, say, administrative offices, where they can hone skills in communication, time management, and adaptability. And, above all, he has tried to design classes rooted in real-world projects, like the one on Haiti, or his longstanding course “International Organizations and Conferences,” in which students work on behalf of various stakeholders at high-level international environmental conferences.

“One of the things that always impressed me about Gordon was how the courses he taught centered on experiential learning — on working with other organizations. He wanted students to walk away not just with a degree but having made a difference,” says Joanne DeBernardo, who knows Geballe from 15 years at YSE, first as the registrar and later as an assistant dean. “I only wish I’d spent more of my 44 years of employment working beside him.”

“In this Together”

Geballe was appointed assistant dean at YSE in the 1980s. In that role, he found himself supporting every dimension of the school’s operations — from admissions and financial aid to registration and facilities. But at the center of this work, always, were students.

“He is probably the greatest student champion there is at the school,” says Pilar Montalvo, who worked beside Geballe as an assistant dean at YSE from 2002 to 2012. (She is now an assistant vice president in the Office of the Secretary and vice president for University Life.) “Everything for Gordon has always been about the students, whether the educational part of their experience or their social and community life.”

He is probably the greatest student champion there is at the school. Everything for Gordon has always been about the students, whether the educational part of their experience or their social and community life.”

Pilar Montalvo Assistant Vice President, Office of the Secretary and Vice President for Student Life

Speth agreed, noting that Geballe kept his door open at all times and collaborated with students in the creation of a culture that has for so long been a defining feature of YSE. The student community, Speth said, is extraordinary, “a vital part of the school, and Gordon is really central to that.”

Joanne DeBernardo, Gordon Geballe, and Eugenie Gentry

Joanne DeBernardo, Gordon Geballe, and Eugénie Gentry celebrate the graduates at the 2019 Yale School of the Environment (then Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies) Commencement.

But building and nurturing community was a commitment he carried beyond the student body. “Gordon knew that on the pecking order of a university the staff are often on the lowest rung,” says Eugénie Gentry, who worked in development at YSE from 2000 to 2012. (She is now an associate vice president for development in Yale’s central development office.) Given this, he insisted that there be organized yearly retreats for the staff, and he was often the principal designer of where the event would take place. He made it a point to recognize the essential work that staff performed, and to make it clear that staff were, more broadly, integral to achieving the mission of the school. “He always expressed this keen sense that we — faculty, students, and staff — are in this together.”

Perhaps at no time was this orientation on greater display than in March of 2003, when a strike was planned among Yale’s mechanical, maintenance, clinical, and technical staff. The strike was projected to last for a week, perhaps more, and it was contentious, as strikes tend to be. Not everybody was in favor.

Prior to the strike, Geballe pulled all the staff together in Sage Hall and openly acknowledged the tensions. He made clear that people will have different opinions about what should happen, and that these different opinions were valid. And then he encouraged everybody to look around the room and recognize that they were, above all, a community.

“He reinforced the idea of community first and last, irrespective of how we felt or how fraught relations might get during the strike,” Gentry says. “He emphasized that we would all come back together again and live happily ever after — which is, for the most part, what happened.”

Community beyond the Campus

The first nonprofit board that Geballe served on was that of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment (now part of Save the Sound). He joined at a time when Yale was beginning to recognize the health of the university as inextricable from the health of New Haven. “One of the mantras at Yale was that the university needs to pay attention to what’s going on in New Haven,” he says. “It was probably too paternalistic back then, but at least we started trying to work cooperatively with the city.”

He has since served on the boards of roughly a dozen local organizations, including for more than 10 years as Chair of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

“He brings his experience as an educator, and he is very focused on the development of capacity,” says Shelley Quiala, executive director of the festival. In his advisory role, he has helped her recognize that nonprofits, like universities, can and should be places of growth. “He has imbued that spirit into me, and into the festival as whole — this idea that, along with the other roles we play, we are, and should be, a learning organization.”

He always placed the excellence of a Yale education at the center of his efforts. Of course, Marta and I also deeply appreciate his many contributions to our home city.... The Yale and New Haven communities have benefited immensely from his service.”

Peter Salovey Yale University President

She noted a recent awards dinner hosted by the NAACP in which the festival received an award. While at the dinner, Geballe was looking to see who else was being honored. When the youth award was given out, he suggested they talk to the winner about joining the Arts & Ideas board. “He was using the opportunity of this dinner as he uses everything: As a way to decenter himself and center other perspectives.”

Geballe also volunteered for years on the board of Dwight Hall, which places students in positions of service in the community, and he supported professor emeritus William Burch in establishing the Urban Resources Initiative, an essential conduit between the work of YSE and New Haven. He remains an active URI board member today.

“One of the many important things he’s championed while on the board is making it more diverse,” says Colleen Murphy-Dunning, the director of URI. “At the beginning, it was all men, and all white. He was never pushy about change — he’s so gentle about everything — but he kept at it, kept bringing it up, because it’s something he cares about deeply.”

Murphy-Dunning also described the way in which Geballe used URI to reinforce connections between Yale and New Haven. Within the first week of Peter Salovey becoming president of Yale, he and his wife, Marta Moret, went on a tour with Gordon to see URI’s work around the city. Over the course of an hour, they met community greenspace groups and talked with the volunteers who manage them. This happened, says Murphy-Dunning, solely because of how much Geballe cares about New Haven.

“Gordon’s career is one of extraordinary range and depth,” says Yale University President Peter Salovey ‘86 PhD. “I especially treasure the work we did together when he was the director of undergraduate programs, and I was dean of Yale College. He always placed the excellence of a Yale education at the center of his efforts. Of course, Marta and I also deeply appreciate his many contributions to our home city. In particular, we are grateful for his work as a member of the board of directors for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The Yale and New Haven communities have benefited immensely from his service.”

An Embrace of Change

One way of staying in a job for a long time, Geballe says, is to make sure it doesn’t remain the same job. He was always a lecturer; the subjects he taught shifted. He was an assistant and then associate dean for many years, but his responsibilities were reinvented. The evolution of his and the school’s work continues to this day, and it is a process that he finds comforting to watch — something reassuring that harkens back to his doctoral years studying under ecologists and plant physiologists.

The world is dynamic, Geballe says. Consider a forest. We may use the word “forest” as a noun, but it is more properly interpreted as a verb. There are trees and plants growing and dying. There are leaves rotting, bugs scurrying, birds migrating. There are rivers flooding and mists drifting. There are people, too, studying, logging, and living in the landscape.

“In the same way, everything was always changing at the school — which is my way of saying it has never been boring,” Geballe says. “It’s been such a key part of my life, and I thank all the people I interacted with, not only directly, but all the people in the school who made it what it was and is. I thank them all. And all the people of New Haven, as well.”

With the open schedule of retirement, Geballe is looking forward to spending time with his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. He hopes to commit himself more fully to gardening, and to the new hobby of beekeeping. His presence on campus will be missed. “He’s such a special guy,” says Murphy-Dunning. “Just walking by his office now will be sad.” But he’ll never be far away.

As Geballe put it: “It is hard to separate my life from New Haven.”

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