Bow ties be­long­ing to WVU pres­i­dent Gee go on dis­play

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By Bill Schack­ner

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.”

Jessie War­darski/Post-Gazette

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 for a video.

Jessie War­darski/Post-Gazette pho­tos

More than 1,000 ties hang on the walls of the pres­i­den­tial res­i­dence of E. Gor­don Gee, pres­i­dent of West Vir­ginia Univer­sity. Visit 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.

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