The Mensch Connection

By Ramzy Nasrallah on June 4, 2013 at 11:30a

Elizabeth Gee was just 46 when breast cancer killed her. She left behind an adopted teenage daughter as well as a grieving husband, who had barely been Ohio State's president for a year when she passed 22 years ago this December.

Elwood Gordon Gee and Elizabeth had been married 22 years earlier in Utah. They've now been apart as long as they were together.

The Gees had each other through college, law school and his rapid ascent into academia that saw him become West Virginia University's president at the age of 37, Colorado's at 41 and Ohio State's at 46. Suddenly, he was a young widower in Columbus, a town he barely knew.

And the town overwhelmed him with comfort during the most challenging time of his life. It rallied around Gee in 1991 and quickly calibrated his unique character with its idiosyncratic culture through the unwanted vehicle of his own personal tragedy. Elizabeth quickly became everyone's shared loss.

Gee was forever changed by this reception. Not just by losing his wife, but by Ohio State's impact on him during that difficult time. It shaped the way he still carries himself today when attending to the affairs of advancing his beloved institution.

Ohio State's president was born a natural salesman talented enough to just show up and win most deals. That's how one becomes the president of a major university before turning 40.

At 69, Gee is quite aware of and extremely comfortable with the skills he has, so you'll have to forgive him for speaking unguardedly as he did last December when he dropped a series of truth bombs during an OSU athletic council meeting. His rapid career ascent didn't transpire because he was cautious.

The president of a top 20 public university made a cheeky literacy joke at the expense of an athletic conference comprised largely of historically mediocre schools. He also made disparaging but accurate comments about ham-scented serial blowhard Bret Bielema.

But perhaps above all else, a Mormon made a Catholic joke. This all took place on the same tape acquired by the AP through a routine public records request. A predictable inflated outrage spasm from all of the usual, lightly-informed suspects ensued.

E. Gordon "Brutus" Gee, unveiled on campus in 2007.

Some thought Gee should be fired for his comments, which was the laziest conclusion to be drawn. His well-documented fundraising prowess has been invoked as the reason for his job security, but as important as his value is to Ohio State is understanding why Gee will never stop being Gee. It began when Elizabeth was taken from him while many of their possessions were still sitting in unpacked moving boxes from Colorado.

When his grief was consumed alongside him by the university community, it left a lasting impression on him. Ohio State became more than just an employer to Gee. His heart and his head became effectively fused together.

As president he was suddenly now selling something far more personal than just a sterile, behemoth university that played football games in an open-air cathedral. It wasn't that Columbus had more empathy than any of his previous stops, or that it is uniquely suited for accommodating grief (though this all took place during a particularly hideous stretch against Michigan).

Ohio State was where he happened to be when his life was ripped apart. Its measure of respect for a relative newcomer was profound, and he never forgot that.

The direct result of that experience is that you simply will not find a university president who is more comfortable, unguarded and defensive about his institution than Gee is with Ohio State.

He was a prodigy in his business long before he arrived in Columbus. Running a university is the pinnacle of apolitical politics; it's selling a product with so many moving parts it's impossible to sufficiently demonstrate. He is a radical reformer of old guard ivory tower academia.

Put Gee as the head of any university (except for perhaps those of the Ivy League like Brown, who found him a little too eager to tinker its underperforming traditions) and those sales skyrocket. When he was selling Vanderbilt, student applications increased by 50% over six years, academic profiles of incoming freshmen improved and he raised over a billion dollars two years ahead of schedule while Vandy's popularity and performance soared

But that's not how Gee is remembered. He's just a little too interesting for his own resume, which quietly tells you that no American has held more university presidencies than he has.

Ask a cynical writer to summarize Gee's tenure at Vanderbilt and you'll hear something about the president's mansion being extravagantly upgraded while his second marriage loudly crumbled. Question the same cynic about Ohio State and you'll breathlessly about his verbal gaffes and spending on bow ties. 

What you won't hear is that Gee took a significant pay cut to return to Ohio State. Then he trimmed millions of dollars in costs while raising billions in new investment while relentlessly tearing down a stagnant routine approach to academia, which is his mortal enemy.

You will not find a president more comfortable, unguarded and defensive about his institution than Gee is with Ohio State.

Remember when Ohio State switched from quarters to semesters? Gee did that, and it wasn't because he disliked quarters (he really didn't care).

It was because he knew doing so would force professors to redesign their courses. Turning the academic calendar upside down had a greater purpose than conformity. He shook up one of the largest university systems in the world and demanded collaboration and relentless innovation while connecting departments previously operating in silos.

But this is how we've always done it doesn't exist at Ohio State under Gee. It was pervasive and stubborn at Brown, which is precisely why he left.

You won't hear much these days about is Ohio State's dramatic and holistic improvement well beyond donations, solvency, research grants and caliber of incoming students - though Time recently named him the best college president in America. Hurr hopefully Jim Tressel won't fire him is so much easier to categorize him.

His second stint as OSU president would be solidifying his towering legacy in academia were it not for the rich stream of harmless verbal gaffes he continues to provide on the record.

And that is the only truly alarming component of Gee's most recent comments: That they were made at an official university function, categorically made accessible to the public through FOIA.

After sustaining Tatgate - enabled by Tressel's use of university email to create easily-discoverable evidence - Gee should have known his comments would inevitably find their way out of the room.

Virtually every move Ohio State officials make is accessible. Ohio's sunshine laws have not been tweaked specifically to shield state university operations from invasive reporting (why hello, ALABAMA). FOIA requests constantly flood its offices. That's the norm, and Gee - and anyone else conducting official Ohio State business - should always be cognizant of that fact.

Gee has never stopped chipping away at traditional academia

Short of knowing the color of his morning constitution, anyone with a knack for paperwork and a little extra time can find out whatever they want to about Gee's daily life. The AP did exactly that and made his meeting in December a story in June.

If it had not been the AP, it would have been Deadspin, the Dispatch, the Toledo Blade or literally anyone else with time and curiosity.

Now he'll have to undergo some training charade not so he can learn sensitivity or better joke-telling, but to appreciate that Ohio State's Board of Trustees has absolutely no appetite for even the perception of a scandal.

The Board is not interested in accepting both harmless gaffes and soaring progress, and that's alarming. Where Tressel could teach doctorate-level courses in how to speak at Castro lengths without actually saying anything, Gee would fail that class harder than Rich Rodriguez at a University of Michigan Culture seminar.

We expect people on television and in positions of power to speak in perfect, edited sound bytes - and then when they do we admonish them for being sterile. Being genuine and cheeky results in forced apologies. Gee not gregariously speaking from his gut just isn't Gee. It isn't anything.

And that's not who Ohio State should want leading its charge anyway. Gee didn't guide the university to where it is now by being conventional or robotic. He did it by turning convention on its ear.

The university rallied around him once before, during a far more trying time. He will never forget that, and neither should Ohio State. It should unapologetically do so once again.


Comments Show All Comments

jthiel09's picture

Great article, about a great man.
Thanks Ramzy.


9Route's picture

Great stuff!

I'm just happy to be here

PWLafferty. TBDBITL. TRow.'s picture

downvote? someone own up

"I'm up there with Chris and Dave Pass, getting ready to broadcast that game, and that band came out of that tunnel, I was wiping tears out of my eyes and all the memories came back." ~Urban Meyer

Citrus's picture

Bravo. One of the best written pieces I have come across in a while.

LABuckeye's picture

I agree with all of it.

CincyBuckeye04's picture

So nice to read someone who can articulate why Gee is the right fit for the job in such an easy to read manner. Thanks Ramzy.

Oakland Buckeye's picture

WOW, Of all the work you have done on this website Ramzy, this apologetic message is without peer - thanks for going against the grain ( the grain is desperate for this kind of writing). Thank you for letting us see behind the curtain with President Gee. I am a bigger fan than ever!!!

buckeyepastor's picture

Spot on.   Great article.  Perfectly captures the reality of this non-issue for everyone that truly knows or has spent any length of time with E. Gordon Gee.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Oyster's picture

The problem with Gee and the rest of the nation is this, the majority do not see him as we do, so they have no idea how genuine he really is.  They only see the gaffes (afraid of JT firing him, the Catholics etc).  If they actually had the insight we in central Ohio have, they would see it all in a different light. 

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

9Route's picture

I totally agree with this...that's why I just say -- screw 'em, who cares what they think!

I'm just happy to be here

TLB's picture

Local media needs to let it go.  One station ran the story with the same dialog 3 times in 1/2 hour yesterday.

spqr2008's picture

"fail that class harder than Rich Rodriguez at a University of Michigan Culture seminar"
Ramzy, your one liners are just spectacular.

BamBamBuck's picture

Well done Ramzy, always enjoy your reads. I have no issues with any of the Gee “humor” some find offensive, usually those looking to damage tOSU brand, as Gee tends to target all people regardless of race, religion, etc. That who know him or have heard him speak know full well he, himself, is the most frequented target of his own humor and means nothing personal in what he says regarding others, with the exception of what he said about Bielema, the SEC, and ND of course!
Go Bucks!
Go Gee Man!


NoVA Buckeye's picture

The offseason begins when your season ends. Even then there are no days off.

Stinson's picture

"The height of human desire is what wins, whether it's on Normandy Beach or in Ohio Stadium." -Wayne Woodrow Hayes

ARMYBUCK's picture

Bravo to you Sir Ramzy and bravo to E. Gordon Gee. Ive never been Politically Correct and I embrace E. Gordon Gee's "gaffes".  What I dont like is the forced apologies.  I would rather someone be themselves than conform to the 'status quo'.  Great article Ramzy.  Go Gee and Go BUCKS!

BuckeyeStrong2's picture

100% Perfect!


AltaBuck's picture

Amen and Thanks Be to Gee.

I am Groot - Groot

Bucksfan's picture

I don't doubt the man's overall quality.  I simply question his ability to talk college football.  As smart and as passionate as he is, as good of a college President he is, I've never heard anyone come off as more of a jackass Ohio State fan than Gordon Gee.  Perhaps that is endearing to some.  To others, it's supremely embarrassing.  This ranges from the famous tying Michigan comment in 1992, to there only being a college football playoff "over my dead body," to the "little sisters of the poor" comment about TCU right before that Rose Bowl, to his comments about never paying a coaching staff what an SEC school does only to turn around and give Urban Meyer a blank check, to the Tressel firing thing that Ramzy mentions, to all the comments in the most recent headlines. 
I am not sure he has ever been Presidential (or even correct) when it comes to discussing college football.  At the very least, he's not in touch with the mainstream.  To me, this has nothing to do with his personal life.  I say he should just leave it to Gene.  Delegate, refuse to comment on football, and get on with his duties.

Hovenaut's picture

Very poignant Ramzy, you're representing Ohio State (and 11W) well today sir.

southbymidwest's picture

Ramsy, I love your writing. It is measured and graceful, yet passionate, or perhaps compassionate. It helps us come to a better understanding of the subject that is not shown in the skim-the-surface journalism we so often see that is supposedly "in-depth".

OSUs12-OH's picture

Love the background story on Gee and that first pic is priceless. However I have respectfully disagree that he has the right to speak this way. Whether it's due to what ever may have happened to him in his past personal life or how well regarded he is by literature magazine like Time.  This is one I have to disagree....
This article is all good but he needs to keep his mouth shut...period.  His job is to be OSU's president, be visual on campus (which he is per friends of mine that attended OSU and I've personally seen him in the box seats at home games), raise money for OSU and yes again, keep his mouth shut and represent OSU for the great institution it is.  I love your stuff Ramzy, but this statement was as dumb as it gets from Gee, "Let me be very clear. I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me." That statement was so off and couldn't have come at a worse time.  Let's hope his latest whoopsie is his last off topic comment in front of a crowd (I hope).  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

JBuckeye's picture

I have to ask.....are you also an apologist for the rabid fan base that OSU enjoys when they are a bit off color?
Gee is who he is and what anyone thinks isn't going to change him one bit.  He is who he is just like a fan base is who it is. 
If the guy wants to speak off the cuff every now and then I could care less as long as OSU keeps rising in the esteem of academia and we keep winning more and more national championships in everything sports up to and including rowing!
Whatever Gee says will never diminish his contributions to making OSU the premier educational institution in the mid-west.

Idaho Helga's picture

I'm sorry, but he has been, and continues to be, a serious embarrassment for our image on the national level.  I cannot explain the guy when I'm asked why we keep him.  Nobody outside of Ohio really cares or knew that Time Magazine said he's the best.  They wouldn't today.   I am not one of the politically correct by any stretch of the imagination but it's time he plan his exit. 
We try to put forth to the nation that we far more than a football school and then Gee absolutely unravels that with his remarks. Repeatedly.  He's a public figure who can't compute that the media seeks headlines based on people saying stupid things.
Tressel may have been boring but if I want comedy I'll turn to Billy Crystal, not the head of my alma mater.
I was also (previous to this latest foot-in-the-mouth episode) unaware of his spending habits.  During times when tuition is skyrocketing, it's incomprehensible to me that a state employee is spending many millions like he does.  Why would extravagant spending on personal items like his ties get expensed?  That constitutes income per the IRS.  Granted, he likely has all that in the fine print of his contract but given the dollar volume it still irks me.
Ramzy's articles are always good but I can't agree with the conclusion.  Sometimes in life things just come together and at 69 it's probably time for Mr. Gee to retire.  Soon.

BuckeyeBacker98's picture

You not being able to explain why OSU kept him is a YOU problem.  You, like many others, base your opinions solely on these superfluous issues.  Gee's accomplishment as President at OSU have been tremendous on virtually every front.  He has greatly improved OSU's academic standing, raised a ton of money, improved facilities, led the long overdue shift to semesters, forged many beneficial partnerships, and so much more.  So he is a top performer in all areas that are important for a university president...that is why OSU kept him.
The fact that he isn't an "expert" on sports and he makes frequent, sometimes off color, remarks while trying to get a laugh doesn't outweigh his accomplishments.  People who give too much weight to athletics, and who are far too concerned about outsiders taking shots at OSU are the only ones that fail to see Gee for the blessing he is/was to OSU. 
As an OSU grad, and someone who has met the man a few times, I have no problem saying that Gordon Gee was the best thing to happen to Ohio State in the last 100 years.  Where the university is now, versus where it was before Gordon Gee entered the picture is nothing short of amazing.

Matt Brown's picture

I really dig the thrust of this article, and I'd have to agree that overall, Gee has been a great president for Ohio State, and calls for him to resign over something like this (or be fired) are hacky, and probably come from people who don't really understand what a university president does.

That being said, I don't really know how fair it is to give Gee credit for the switch to semesters, or say that the undergraduate student experience was a driving force. While I know Gee had suggested the move back in his first stint with the school, all of the articles I found seemed to indicate that consolidating the state's academic calendars was the real reason for the shift. Can't really call the guy a blazing reformer for that. I'm also not sure he should be lauded for taking a pay cut, given that he has the highest base salary of any public university president in the US.

I still love the guy though. He's a hell of a salesman and we're lucky to have him.

OSUs12-OH's picture

This^^^ Love your response and you're spot on!  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

el duderino's picture

Ramzy, I would just like to add my voice to the chorus of approval for this article and all you've ever written for 11w.
You articulated my views on this whole deal better than I ever could have hoped to. Thank you!

"This is a very complicated case: a lot of ins, lot of outs, lot of what-have-yous."

Jdadams01's picture

A year ago, a family acquaintance who had just started as a freshman at OSU was run over by a dump truck on campus while he was riding his bike to class. The doctors had to amputate his leg and he is still in therapy. It was weeks after the accident before he was coherent and able to have a conversation with his family and friends, and when that happened, E. Gordon Gee came and spent an afternoon with him and the family. In my experience, most people in Gee's position would simply send a note or flowers, but Gee wanted to personally check in on one of his students and give support to the family. The man gets the important things about Ohio State and because of that, I have a hard time worrying about comments that a majority of Ohio State fans probably agree with anyway. He can rag Notre Dame, Bert, and the SEC all he wants. It's not like they don't rag us.

chitown buckeye's picture

+1 There are countless stories like this out there that most of the national naysayers don't know about. Like Ramzy stated, its easier to focus on a  few off-cuff comments then the countless kind acts like this one.
I think it is safe to say almost every student who attended OSU under Gees leadership has a great story to tell of meeting him at some point during their life at OSU. I don't believe you can say that about many other university presidents.

"I'm having a heart attack!"

Jdadams01's picture

Well, OSU should have a large number of interested candidates. They'll have a lot of pressure to bring in a homerun hire.

KE's picture

And now he has announced his resignation. A real tragedy.

AhhYes's picture

I really liked Gee as a President. He did a lot of good for OSU. I also understand that "off the cuff" (translation: occasionally thoughtless and tactless) remarks were part-and-parcel with him, but eventually you have to say enough is enough.
A huge part of his job is representing the University with his words. When he doesn't choose them carefully it reflects poorly on all of us. He was forgiven for this more than a few times. It was time, and I think he's making the right call by retiring.

thatlillefty's picture

Gee makes some jokes and the talking heads beat their drums for their idiot audiences until a great men are forced into early retirements.
F*ck this PC culture. This happens too often and it sucks.

Bucknut-in-the-South's picture

A gem of an article, Ramzy, about a gem of a man. It is a very sad day for the Ohio State Community; losing a man of Gee's stature and abilities will doubtless hurt the university in numerous ways, many of them undetectable to the hyper-sensitive among us who believe that a few unguarded, ill-chosen remarks among "friends" and peers will make the universe implode. He will be missed in so many ways, not least of which are his unbridled enthusiasm for all things Ohio State and his goofy, bow-tied grin. May God give you a peaceful and interesting retirement, President Gee. You are that beast which society cannot tolerate - a true individual. 

Haybucks's picture

Not many University presidents are as engaged with their sports programs as E. Gordon Gee.  Maybe his notoriety will get the media to set us up for an SEC beatdown!  Haha.  MNC game here we come!

If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later. -  Mark Twain


45has2's picture

"I'm a 69yro multi millionaire. I don't need anymore of this pc pussification of America. I'm going to take my million dollar pension and laugh all the way to the bank. AMF."

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

WC Buckeye's picture

This is the level to which our society has sunk. Everyone's a victim, everyone has a right to be offended by every little slight that nicks his/her little psyche, and political correctness has turned us all into a bunch of lawsuit-fearing, totally muted pussies. I don't think that it is advisable for a university president to be making off-color jokes about people of any religion, race, sexual preference <and all other protected segments of our society>, but c'mon - this all came about because someone had an ax to grind and made a FOIA request to sharpen it. Bullshit. Overall, I'd say this is a sad day for our beloved university.

The only thing that's new in the world is the history that we have forgotten.

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

Mr Ramzy, well written. I am both better informed and entertained, with tiny tears of nostalgia tickling at the edges of my eyes. Eliciting emotions from your readers is good writing (sniff sniff). You ever try your hand at script writing, short story, etc?

Anyway, God bless America and Ohio State!

That is all.

I like cookies.

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

Wow. Did not realize he resigned till just now. that is just so crappy and sad. triple yes to the stupidity of the PC crowd. Well, guess what? That might be exactly what makes this football team even MORE pissed off. Urban Meyer will use this as (absolutely proper) motivation this fall. We are going to create a lot of enemies this year (which is a good thing) by ripping open the lower intestines of each opponent...motivation!

Farewell Mr Gee. You leave our university and state a better place for your service here. Fair Winds and Following Seas, good sir.

I like cookies.

SeattleBuckeye's picture

Those of us bashing political correctness should remember that political correctness, despite its downsides, has spared us from hearing racial, ethnic, homophobic and gender slurs on a regular basis, and has prompted us to recognize that words can reinforce bigotry.  We are not sterilizing a university president's speech when we ask him to stop using the term "damn Catholics," ripping on the Polish, and labeling the South as illiterate; we are asking him to be respectful and to speak like an educated leader whose words influence huge numbers of people.  From what I have heard, Gee was an excellent president in many ways, and I'm not saying he should have resigned over this, but we must be careful to excuse the man, not his idiotic, retrograde remarks.

rdubs's picture

Meanwhile no on cares while the Alabama chancellor endorsed segregation at Alabama.

9Route's picture

Seattle - put a sock in it already, bruh

I'm just happy to be here

cajunbuckeye's picture

Ramzy, you hit this one out of the park.

An angry fan...rooting for an angry team...led by angry coaches

FitzBuck's picture

Great write up.  I wish everyone that has screamed for his resignation would read this just to give a balanced view.  Thank you.  

Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

Buckeyeboy's picture

Thank you Ramzy, for giving us a peek at the life of a wonderful gentleman.

Go Bucks!

cdubs's picture

Gee has a great framed quote in his office by General Eric Shinseki: "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less." I think it sums up his mentality and the approach he took to his job so perfectly.

Buckeyeneer's picture

Finally had time to read this. Fantastic.

"Because the rules won't let you go for three." - Woody Hayes

THE Ohio State University