‘Heart and soul’ of Belmont leaves 50-year legacy of leadership
Dr. Herbert C. Gabhart, 95, chancellor and retired president of Belmont University, passed away early this morning in Nashville. Dr. Gabhart served Belmont University for 50 years, leading as president of Belmont College from 1959-1982 and inspiring the campus as chancellor for the past 26 years.
“On behalf of the entire Belmont University community, I want to express my sincere condolences to the Gabhart family,” said Belmont President Dr. Bob Fisher. “Dr. Gabhart represented the heart and soul of Belmont for the past 50 years, and we will miss him deeply. However, his legacy of love for this institution and the people here will live on. We all recognize that Belmont’s successes today come from standing atop his shoulders and building on all that he first achieved. His words, his life and his vision will continue to inspire and guide Belmont into the future.”
Dr. Gabhart served as president of Belmont College from 1959 until he retired in 1982 and began his term as chancellor of Belmont, a position he held for 27 years. During his tenure as president, Belmont experienced phenomenal growth in enrollment and physical space. When he arrived at Belmont College in 1959, the school’s enrollment was 360 students. When he retired as president in 1982, Belmont’s student population had grown by 500 percent to more than 2,000. He oversaw a budget increase from $480,000 to $8 million, and the campus also saw physical expansion with the addition of nine new buildings, including the Massey Performing Arts Center, Wheeler Humanities building, Hitch Science building, the library, and more. Belmont also expanded academically by adding many majors and degrees, including music, nursing, business and more.
Dedicating 50 years of his life and career to Belmont University, Dr. Gabhart’s fingerprints are evident across the campus, including in the Gabhart Student Center named in his honor. Under his leadership, Belmont forged numerous relationships with community leaders—including Jack C. Massey and the Maddox family—that brought the institution to new heights. Dr. Gabhart also guided the college through significant challenges in its early history as a four-year institution, including a fire that destroyed an academic building and several periods of financial strain.
Upon his retirement as president of Belmont in 1983, Dr. Gabhart said, “Every day I live I will say a good word and do a good deed for Belmont,” a promise he more than fulfilled. In a 1999 email to campus, Dr. Gabhart congratulated the Belmont community on its growth and reflected on his 40 years of service at that time: “The university is on the shores of the unknown future, of an ocean of unseen miracles. With vision, courage and faith, the impossible can become possible. It will therefore sail on and on, pursuing an upward course.”
He is survived by his wife Dr. Norma Baker Gabhart, daughters Betty Fay Gabhart Smith (Nashville) and Jo Ellen Gabhart Aleshire (Pittsburgh, PA); four grandchildren Jennie Lee Aleshire (New Orleans), Jonathan Daniel Aleshire (Elon, NC), William Timothy Smith, and Matthew Conway Smith (both of Nashville); and his sister, Helen Louise Gabhart Hayden (Evansville, IN). He is also survived by two sons-in-law, James Randolph Smith and Daniel O. Aleshire, and nieces and nephews: Robert Alan Hayden (Hilton Head, SC), Daniel Riley Hayden (Evansville, IN), Charles M. Ashburn (Westminster, MD), Bill Ashburn (Ft. Wayne, IN) and Becky Ashburn Clark (San Diego, CA).
Dr. Herbert Conway Gabhart was born on August 19, 1914 in Morganfield, Ky., and was preceded in death by his wife of 56 years, Helen Ashburn Gabhart (1999), his eldest daughter, Diana Ruth Gabhart (1994), and two siblings, Elizabeth Lorene Gabhart and William Royal Gabhart.
Prior to coming to Belmont, Dr. Gabhart served pastorates at First Baptist Church, Williamsburg, KY and McClean Baptist Church, Memphis, TN. Dr. Gabhart was past president of the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools and the chairman of the Affiliated Independent Colleges of Tennessee. He also served on the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention and was a long-time member of the Nashville Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce and Belmont Heights Baptist Church and a current member of First Baptist Church Nashville. In addition to being honored as a Distinguished Alumni of Carson-Newman College, Dr. Gabhart was also honored in 1985 with the prestigious Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and received the Ralph Brunson Spiritual Aims Award, a lifetime achievement honor, from the Kiwanis Club in 1996. He received a B.S. from Carson Newman College and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. After serving as a church pastor for several years, Dr. Gabhart accepted the job of president of Belmont in 1959. In addition to his 50 years of service and leadership at Belmont, Dr. Gabhart also authored more than 16 books.
Dr. Gabhart’s grandchildren will serve as pallbearers, and honorary pallbearers will include members of the Dynamo class of Belmont Heights Baptist Church, members of the Sojourners class of First Baptist Church, the greater Belmont University family, Downtown Kiwanis and the Palaver Club of Nashville.
The family will receive visitors Saturday from 2-5 p.m. at Belmont University’s Gordon E. Inman Center (fourth floor). A memorial service will be conducted at the First Baptist Church Nashville on Sunday at 2 p.m. followed by a private family burial. The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, sympathy be expressed by donations to the Herbert C. Gabhart Scholarship Fund at Belmont University.