Mike Gibson, former Center for Dubuque History Director

Gibson Receives Harlan–Peterson Award for Lifetime Achievement

Robert Waterbury

The State Historical Society of Iowa named Michael Gibson (MA ’91) as the 2020 recipient of the William J. Petersen & Edgar R. Harlan Lifetime Achievement Award. The award is one of the most prestigious history honors bestowed in the state.

“I’m humbled and honored to receive this prestigious award and wish to thank numerous individuals, including Loras colleagues, for writing letters of support,” Gibson said. “In the nearly fifty years of my involvement in local history, I’m most proud of the nearly one-hundred Loras College student workers and interns that have worked with me. Some of these have pursued careers in public history fields including archives, museums, historic preservation, and the National Park service. This award is a great capstone on a very rewarding career.

Gibson has served as the director of the Loras College Center for Dubuque History since 1983. Over the past 37 years, he has worked tirelessly to build the Center into a vital repository of both Dubuque and Loras College history.

“The qualities that define Mike include an unquestioned level of personal integrity; a determined, strong measure of persistence; and, his commitment over many years to developing personal contacts with civic leaders, governmental officials, and historically-minded citizens in Dubuque County,” Robert Klein, author and former director of the Loras College Library, said. “These characteristics have brought to Mike such a well-deserved trust and respect that he is now seen as the ‘go-to guy’ for local history questions from the simplest, merely curious, to the more serious research projects.”

The Harlan-Peterson Award is the most recent of the accolades Gibson has accrued in her career. Some of his most recent awards include the Founders Award from the Mines of Spain Foundation and Volunteer of the Year Award from Dubuque Main Street, Limited.

A native of Pocatello, Idaho, Gibson moved to Iowa in 1973 to begin work as the business manager of the State Historical Society of Iowa. Over the subsequent ten years, he served the institution in various capacities until the opportunity at Loras College came his way.

“It is not too much to say that Mike has been the vital force in the growth and success of the Center for nearly forty years. He has collected and preserved vital resources on the early history of the state,” Timothy Walch, Director Emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, said. “Among the treasures are the earliest records of municipal government in the state and priceless glass plate negatives that reveal the nature of work in Dubuque and other Iowa communities. Hundreds of cubic feet of precious records and artifacts have been saved from indifference and destruction because of Mike’s interest and ardor.”

Under Gibson’s guidance, the Center annually serves over 500 researchers in the reading room, responds to more than 1,800 e-mails, and answers more than 1.300 phone calls every year. Inquiries come from all over the state, the country and from Germany, Ireland, and Australia, among other countries.

Loras College President Jim Collins (’84) acknowledged the hard work Gibson has put into the Center, as well as his lasting impact on Loras students.

“The Loras College Center for Dubuque History has become such a rich treasure thanks to the lifelong, dedicated, and very humble leadership provided by Mike. He has provided significant service and expertise throughout the years, graciously offering advice and counsel to those working on projects, and mentored countless students towards careers in research, education, public service, and historic preservation. He has done it all with little fanfare, but always with great enthusiasm and a selfless attitude,” he said.

Education has been a central tenant under Gibson’s direction. From creating grade-school kits on local history to mentoring Loras students in various aspects of research and history, he has crafted a lasting impact on generations pursuing careers in history.

“I am forever grateful to Mike Gibson and the LCCDH for offering me the best student job on the Loras College campus,” Ryan Engleman (’11) said. “Not only did my time there spur my interest in Loras and Dubuque area history, but it also gave me a greater appreciation for the Loras community, college traditions, contributions of faculty/staff, and a further understanding of the colleges’ mission. The CDH furthered my understanding of how the college came to be and the legacy it continues today.”

Sydney Reilly (’20) echoed those sentiments.

“As an intern and then a student worker for Mike, I have learned a great deal just from the ins and outs of working in archives,” she said. “His dedication towards keeping history alive and preserving history is something that cannot go unnoticed.”

The award is presented in honor of William J. Petersen, a long-time curator of the State Historical Society of Iowa in Iowa City, and Edgar R. Harlan, who served as the second director and curator of the Historical Department of Iowa. Both played critical roles in acquiring many of the historical society’s most important collections of artifacts.

Gibson is retiring from his position on June 1 but his impact on the LCCDH will remain long into the future.

“During my senior year, I had the opportunity to intern with Mike,” Hannah Bernhard (’19) recalled. “His guidance helped me not only understand the professional standards and processes of the archival field but why such work is important. His commitment to preserving Iowa history was present in every aspect of his efforts and involvements, including his willingness to talk to everyone from elementary students to college students and senior members of the community.

“Overall, Mike Gibson has inspired me not only professionally, but personally – to take pride in being an Iowan.”

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