Few people can claim to be in any one place for 50 years, yet Belmont University now finds itself reflecting on the loss of a man who was a fixture and more importantly, a leader here, for exactly that amount of time.
Retired president and chancellor Dr. Herbert C. Gabhart, died on the morning of Sept. 10, at the age of 95. Students received an e-mail from President Fisher that “our beloved chancellor departed the earth.” A memorial service was held that Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Nashville.
Gabhart was originally from Morganfield, Ky. After graduating from Carson-Newman College, he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was after years of serving as a pastor that Gabhart was offered the position of president at Belmont, in 1959. At the time, the school’s enrollment stood at 360.
Over the years he witnessed the transformation from Ward Belmont to Belmont University, the construction of nine new buildings on campus, the split from the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and the student enrollment number break 5,000. The school’s budget was increased from $480,000 to $8 million by the time he retired. Also added to Belmont were the schools of music , business and nursing, which lead to Belmont’s re-designation from a college to a university.
Needless to say, big changes over half a century. He remarked in an interview with Belmont graduate Sarah Snyder, that “If I’ve left any legacy at Belmont, it’s that I created something to grow.”
Gabhart’s service extended beyond the parameters of campus. He was president of the Association on Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools and a chairman for Affiliated Independent Colleges of Tennessee, as well a member of the Nashville Kiwanis Club and a part of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Board of Trustees member Larry Thrailkill told the Tennessean that Gabhart was “basically a preacher who got to be a university president, and he had a pastor’s heart for the faculty, staff and students.”
After retiring as president, Gabhart stayed on as chancellor, keeping an office in Fidelity. He was quoted as saying, “Every day I live I will say a good word and do a good deed for Belmont.” He told Snyder “I’ve tried to live a personal life that would reflect very positively for the institution. I’ve tried to do everything I could to get it’s name highly respected in the community and in the educational world.”
Over the years, Gabhart wrote 16 books and contributed more than 400 articles to the now defunct Nashville Banner newspaper, according to files kept in the Lila D. Bunch Library Special Collection.
“Dr. Gabhart represented the heart and soul of Belmont…and we will miss him deeply,” President Bob Fisher said in the university’s press release. Five years ago when Gabhart celebrated his 90th birthday and 45th year at Belmont, President Fisher was quoted as saying, “his integrity, pioneering spirit and love of God inspire me and provide an inspirational point for my own leadership. Judy and I both agree that we know of no one who we admire more.”
At the end of a 50-year relationship with the school, Gabhart’s efforts to improve Belmont have been referenced everywhere from the Nashville Post, the Tennessean, and, of course, in the university’s press release the afternoon of his death. However, perhaps it is in a quote that Gabhart gave during a 1979 interview with the Tennessean that best exemplifies what the man meant to the university and what the university meant to the man.
He said, “If you prick me, I bleed Belmont.”