FIT TO BE TIED
Bow ties belonging to WVU president Gee go on display
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Some have a weakness for artwork that would fill up a gallery. Others can’t get enough designer bags, shoes or sports memorabilia. For E. Gordon Gee, it’s bow ties. The 75-year-old president of West Virginia University has amassed more than 2,000 of them over the years: plaid, striped, wooden, metallic, another with tiny pink piglets — even one that was shot into space.
His predilection is welldocumented, and for the next few months, a sampling of it will be under glass inside WVU’s Evansdale Library for an unusual exhibit dubbed “Passion or Obsession?”
It kicks off a series of displays intended to showcase everyday collections of students, faculty and staff, and in doing so perhaps deliver a message about individuality.
The bow ties displayed on the main floor through May 15 provide a glimpse of a man who, along with whatever else he does, clearly likes to shop.
There is the bow tie handcrafted from peacock and pheasant feathers, another with flip tops connected by a ribbon, and one shaped from a $2 bill. On it goes. Some were gifted to him, he said, but most he bought himself.
“I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t go hunting or fishing,” he said. “But I buy bow ties.”
He added, “I have all sorts of bling.”
That bling has been on display in his daily life for years, from the state capitol in Charleston, where senators have donned bow ties in a welcoming gesture, to the White House, and even nightspots in downtown Morgantown where he poses for selfies with students.
Say what you will. Mr Gee may be a charming and quirky campus leader, or just another high-paid CEO, but give him this: The man has a lot of bow ties.
That’s not surprising since he has been accumulating them since the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
His first bow
Growing up in rural Utah in the 1940s and ‘50s, Mr. Gee spotted his first bow tie while with his father on a roughly 200-mile trip to Salt Lake City for an eye exam.
He couldn’t stop looking at what the man who sat down beside him had fastened around his neck as they waited inside the office.
“I thought it was really cool,” he said.
The teenager begged his dad to get him one at the Auerbach’s department store in that city.
“The rest is history,” he said.
Mr. Gee’s first bow at age 16 “was pretty plain,” he recalls. Black and formal, it would pale beside the spray of colors — the polka dots and stripes — that today could fill a bedroom wall and part of a closet in the WVU president’s home.
And back then, he said, it only solidified the nerdy image of a boy who was class president in Vernal, Utah, a farming town of 2,000. The place had no movie theater, he said, and little sympathy for male fashion flair.
“I was one of those kids that everybody loved to hate,” he said.
But he learned to steel himself from bow tie-bashing.
Years later, while Mr. Gee was working as a judicial fellow in Washington D.C., then U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger told the young Mr. Gee that he would rather not see a bow tie on days the two were together.
“He didn’t think it looked dignified,” he said. ‘’For some reason, he thought I looked like a doofus.”
And during his first goround as WVU president from 1981-85, the 36-year-old Mr. Gee received some pointed advice from a pair of faculty and staff: Lose the bow ties and argyle. He did, but life in a regular tie didn’t last long.
Classic to crazy
Four decades later, his ever-growing collection ranges from classic to crazy.
There is the bow tie with pink piglets against a turquoise background, his go-to choice for trips to WVU’s farm. Another with flip flops is worn on student move-in day. One with a White House pattern is reserved for trips there.
Naturally, there are bow ties for the Fourth of July, Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Others are personal, like the handmade violet bow tie with the names of his two granddaughters, and one for breast cancer awareness, owing to the death of his first wife, Elizabeth.
Still other bow ties are gifts from associates, former students and others.
They bear colors of the institutions where he has been president, including the University of Colorado (19851990), Brown University (1998-2000), Vanderbilt University (2001-2007), Ohio State University (1990-1997 and 2007-2013) and, of course, WVU.
While at Ohio State, criticisms of him included spending on bow ties, but he shook that off, saying what he wears comes from his personal budget. Even a comparison to the shoe obsession of Imelda Marcos, wife of the late Philippine strongman, doesn’t faze him. “I have heard that,” he said.
Though Mr. Gee has a larger-than-life personality, his age, slight build and rim glasses make him an outlier on a campus brimming with robust youth. But his vibrant neckwear bridges the generational divide. And he knows it. “There really should be a bow tie emoji, you know,” he once tweeted.
Were it not for bow ties, Mr. Gee said, he would be just another suit on a campus of 21,000 undergraduates.
That’s something to think about, he explained, in an age when young people live and die by their representation on platforms like Instagram.
“With social media, people are being driven toward having other people define who they are,” Mr. Gee said. “One of the messages I like to give students is, ‘Each one of you have great talents and abilities. You’ve got to maintain your individuality.’”
Bow tie in space
The bow tie exhibit is part of the Art in the Libraries program at WVU. Mr. Gee’s celebrated neckwear seemed a logical starting point for a series that library staff hope will engage and surprise.
“People collect everything,” Sally Deskins, exhibits coordinator with WVU Libraries, mused.
On a recent Thursday night inside Evansdale Library, the bow ties under glass and a sign above it asking, “Do you have collection? Get in Touch,” gave some a reason to pause on their way to study.
“They either watch it as they pass by or some of them actually stop,’ said Nick Lehman, 20, senior engineering major from Burlington, N.J., who works there. “Me, personally? I couldn’t make a hobby out of that.”
About half of Mr. Gee’s collection is “retired,” including some woven into quilts, but there are plenty to wear, technically enough to go almost three years without a bow tie repeat.
And not all of them are made from fabric.
In addition those crafted from metal and and wood — “Those are ones you can’t tie,” as Mr. Gee says — he has a bow tie made of flip tops weaved together by red ribbons.
One bow tie was even launched into space. Rick Linnehan, a NASA astronaut and Ohio State alumnus, took a scarlet-and-gray bow tie on his final flight aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor a decade ago, Ohio State officials said.
Some of Mr. Gee’s ties are works of art, or at least look like they ought to be.
In addition to the peacock and pheasant feather bow tie, there is the Original Brackish Eastern Turkey Feather Bow Tie, first created by designer Ben Ross for his own wedding, library staff said. It was handcrafted in Charleston, S.C.
“The iridescence of the feathers promotes different shades depending on the angle the light hits it,” the library exhibit states, quoting product details.
And as if a guy with 2,000 bow ties would ever be caught short, there is the allblack bow tie in a little red box labeled “Emergency Bowtie … For All Formal Emergencies.”
E. Gordon Gee, 75, president of West Virginia University, ties a bow tie Tuesday at the presidential residence in Morgantown. He estimates he has more than 2,000 bow ties. Visit post-gazette.com for a video.
More than 1,000 ties hang on the walls of the presidential residence of E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University. Visit post-gazette.com for more photos of his collection.
Evansdale Library in Morgantown displays a number of ties from Mr. Gee's collection of more than 2,000 bow ties.