While considering the job offer for College President several years ago, Larry Arnn came across a historical novel about Hillsdale College — and it was partly what inspired him to take the job.
The novel was written by a former history professor named Arlan Gilbert, who taught at the college from 1960 to 1998. Arlan Gilbert taught a record number of students, worked as the chairman of the history department for seven years, and wrote four non-fiction historical novels about Ransom Dunn and the college’s history as a school and during the civil war.
“I always wanted to teach in a good small college and Hillsdale met those requirements,” Arlan said. “There was an emphasis on the facts of history and moral character built into the students and the background, and if you do well in both of those you can make it a really good story where you’re talking about the growth of a very good private college.”
His passion for the subject expanded past campus walls into his personal life where he took his family of four on summer road trips that covered all the states, except Hawaii and Alaska, visiting every civil war battleground like the rural Antebellum South or the renowned Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.
“Every summer we would travel all over the United States and see all the battlefields,” Gilbert’s daughter Angie Berry said. “He was very passionate. We even had a dog named Gun Powder.”
Gilbert wrote his first novel “Historic Hillsdale College: Pioneer in Higher Education, 1844 – 1990” first-handedly, which helped its story come alive as if he was there. He was able to get into this himself due to his training from graduate school, but Joe McNamara, who is also named after McNamara concert hall by a trustee, helped him throughout, Gilbert said.
“The minute I started having an interest in the college’s history, he supported me and we were able to run off four books,” Gilbert said. “He was a tremendously great editor, it really helped having someone organize my ideas and read my work over and over again.”
Before retiring, Gilbert said he remembered the incredible growth of the history department. The high standards set by the history department attracted a great number of students and Gilbert said he enjoyed working with those wanting to learn more.
“Not to brag, but if you’re pretty good, some of the better students are going to enroll, and you have to make it interesting to the point that they are gaining something first-hand. In that way, they will appreciate what the college has been and is now,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert taught a number of courses including American Heritage, Sectionalism in the Civil War, American Economic History, and U.S Constitutional History. Professor of History David Stewart said many students admired Gilbert’s friendly and approachable personality, adding that they took Gilbert’s classes simply because he was the one teaching them.
“Another word a professor used to describe him is ‘pastoral.’ He wants to talk to you and know how you’re doing, who you are, and where you’re from,” Stewart said. “It wasn’t just a business transaction in office hours. He engaged with students like they were people.”
At the very least, Gilbert’s casual and laid-back teaching style showed Stewart that it was okay to not be so serious while lecturing.
“He was still serious about the material and what he was doing, without being serious the whole time,” Stewart said. “He made it okay for me to be weird, but he didn’t make me weird.”
Gilbert not only helped the college through teaching, but he also donated money for the history seminar room in the fourth floor of Delp Hall. This is just one of many ways in which Gilbert has shown great generosity to the college over the years, Professor and Chairman of History Mark Kalthoff said.
“He’s been a strong supporter of the college, always popular with the students,” Kalthoff said. “He’s been exceptionally kind and cheerful and he was known as that for a department member. For all of his successes, he’s always been very humble, so he’s very easy for people to like.”
Gilbert’s teaching wasn’t restricted to campus grounds. Kalthoff said Gilbert tutored students who needed extra help outside of class and office hours at his house, ensuring that they understood the material.
“I think Arlan Gibert saw that a college professor has to succeed by living up to a certain standard, but also has to hold the hand of and mentor students so that they flourish and succeed,” Kalthoff said. “I think that Gilbert was patient in that way with students and wanted them to do well.”