A day before he died, Don Gevirtz told lecturer Alan Wallace that he did not consider himself a compassionate person.
On Monday evening, politicians, business associates, family members and educators gathered in Phelps courtyard to honor Gevirtz’s compassion and celebrate the life of a man described as humble, a rich man who always gave more than he took.
Nine months before, a similar crowd had gathered in the same courtyard to recognize Gevirtz and his wife Marilyn for their $10 million donation to the now renamed Graduate School of Education. Gevirtz would live to see the Gevirtz Graduate School move up a few notches until it was ranked equally with the Rossier School of Education at the [SSCD1]University of Southern California.
Though Gevirtz spent much of his later life dedicated to education and UCSB as a guest lecturer and philanthropist, in his earlier life he was an entrepreneur and also was appointed ambassador to Fiji in 1995 by President Bill Clinton.
Global and International Studies Director Mark Juergensmeyer taught a global studies class with Gevirtz, who used his political connections to bring guest speakers like the ambassadors from Cuba and Hungary, the prime minister of New Zealand and the former prime minister of India. In four years of teaching, the class grew from 175 students to 300 students, Juergensmeyer said.
“This is the only course I’d been in where at the end of the term there were more students than at the beginning,” he said.
By donating to the Graduate School of Education, Chancellor Henry Yang said, Gevirtz and Marilyn, his “partner in philanthropy,” hoped the school would produce the very best teachers who would not only be knowledgeable, but who would also make their students eager to learn.
“As I prepared for today’s tribute to him here on this campus that he truly loved, I have been thinking about him in a different way,” Yang said. “Not quite so much about the past, but about the future, about his legacy and everything that is happening, especially here at what is now the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education as a result of the vision and the generosity of Don and of course Marilyn.”
Local businessman Dave Leyrer, who knew Gevirtz for five years as an investor in his company, said Gevirtz was modest despite his business experience and was eager to hear someone’s honest opinion.
“It is rare that someone at his level of achievement would be so humble. Don always opened a conversation with a question. He always led with what he did not know,” he said. “It was both disarming and a sign of his great confidence. The less secure among us always try to steer a conversation to familiar terrain and to areas of comfort. Don sought out the discomfort zones – that is, where growth occurred, and that’s where he wanted to be.
“Anyone who had a relationship with Don knows that it is almost impossible to talk with guard rails on about Don Gevirtz because it was impossible to have a one-dimensional relationship with Don,” Leyrer said.
Gevirtz was a frequent contributor to the Democratic Party and convinced former UCSB professor Walter Capps to run for Congress, Congresswoman Lois Capps said. After her husband died, Lois Capps said Gevirtz then persuaded her to become involved in politics.
“Here in Santa Barbara there are many smart people, and there are many entrepreneurs who are at the top of their industry and there are many who have accumulated great wealth, but for Don these attributes were constantly put to use for greater purposes,” she said. “He lives on as surely as he inspired me and all of us to invest our resources, the most precious of which are ourselves, in the community and in the world around us.”
In 1998, Gevirtz, in a speech to the Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation, said he and Marilyn held educators in high respect. “Our heroes are no longer great athletes or great politicians, but education leaders,” he said.
Religious studies lecturer Alan Wallace – who visited the Dalai Lama with Gevirtz last year – said in the day before he died, Gevirtz questioned the way to achieve true happiness and said his life had reached “near perfection.”
“I think,” he told Wallace, “I’m getting it.”