The boisterous applause of hundreds of admirers echoed through Palisades Charter High School’s newly refurbished drama classroom on Saturday as Rose Gilbert steadied herself in a walker and made her way to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at its entrance.
The diminutive English teacher of 63 years smiled at the crush of people around her, many of them former students from 18 to 66 years of age, and said: “Gilbert Hall is now open.”
In recent years, Gilbert, who retired three weeks ago at age 94, achieved celebrity status for being the oldest full-time teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and one of the oldest in the nation.
Over the five decades she taught in Palisades High’s Room B204, Gilbert, who married into money, was also known for donating generously for scholarships and construction projects to make the campus more welcoming for three generations of students who knew her as “Momma G.”
On Saturday, Palisades officially named something after her: the drama classroom. The honor could be viewed as mere window dressing, a title bestowed in return for her $1-million donation for extensive renovations in that classroom and nearby Mercer Hall.
To administrators, faculty and students, however, the event is a recognition of her enduring love affair with teaching and Palisades High that has lasted more than half a century. Also among those in attendance was her son, Michael, 70.
“Rose will always hold a very special place in the school’s legacy and in our hearts,” Palisades High Principal Pamela Magee said. “She was the godmother of the school who made sure the kids had what they needed.”
In an interview, Gilbert put it this way: “My coffin won’t have pockets, because my students are well taken care of.”
“Rose is one of a kind: Flamboyant. Inspiring. Unforgettable,” said one of her former students, Ruth Mills, 60, now a Spanish teacher at Palisades. “She was already a legend when I had her in 1969. My daughter had her from 2001 to 2003.”
“Our experiences were the same: you entered Momma G’s class with a combination of excitement and dread,” Mills recalled. “That’s because you knew she was tough and you were in for loads of reading and writing — and 80 new vocabulary words a week.
“She’d toss a Cheerio at any student who said something stupid or wasn’t paying attention in class,” Mills added. “She wore a red plastic fireman’s hat and declared ‘I’m on fire today!’ when teaching something that she felt was red hot.”
“You couldn’t skate in Rose’s class,” agreed Richard Wilken, 66, a dyslexic who struggled through Gilbert’s reading improvement class. “But she brought out the best in us,” added Wilken, who graduated in 1964 and went on to become an architect.
Mills and Wilken are among thousands of “bubbelahs” — a Yiddish term of endearment — Gilbert shepherded first at University High School in West Los Angeles and then at Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades, from its opening day in 1961. Palisades became a charter school in 1993.
Among them were the children of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. Film director J.J. Abrams is a 1984 Palisades graduate.
Gilbert grew up poor in Boyle Heights, the daughter of Polish immigrants. Her passion for teaching was ignited by a first-grade teacher at Malabar Elementary School. “Miss Cheney was so strict,” she recalled. “She was also energetic and enthusiastic. She taught the love of reading and writing. I modeled myself after her.”
Gilbert graduated from UCLA in 1940 and worked as a contract agent at MGM Studios.
In 1950, after her first husband died of an aneurysm, she married Sam Gilbert, an inventor of door locks who became a hugely successful builder and developer.
When he died in 1987 at age 74, she inherited millions and the house he had built for them in Pacific Palisades. Rose brought a young daughter, Maggie, to the marriage. Sam had two sons, Robert and Michael.
Sam encouraged his wife to go back to work, saying she was “born to teach.”
Only a few years ago, the grandmother of seven was leading three advanced placement classes and one honors class each week, and coaching Academic Decathlon participants. Gilbert, who earned a PhD in education at UCLA in 1987, remains an avid supporter of the Bruin men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Her generosity is legendary. After listening to a principal complain about the drab tones of his office, she hired contractors to give it a fresh coat of paint. She paid for construction of display cases to hold Academic Decathlon awards. In the late 1990s, she had a $20,000 digital marquee installed in front of the campus.
In 2004, Gilbert’s daughter Maggie, a swimmer and scholar, died unexpectedly. Gilbert donated $1 million to Palisades Charter High for a swimming pool in Maggie’s honor. She also created scholarships for UCLA’s scholar athletes program in Maggie’s name.
A few minutes before the ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, Gilbert confided, “I’ve already found another job. It’s at the Venice Family Clinic. I’m helping women who’ve been battered.”
“We’re having a fundraiser on May 5,” she added, face aglow. “We’re going to have a booth and I’ll be working in it.”
Gilbert turns 95 in August.