To see teacher Rose Gilbert — a nonstop, 5-foot dynamo — in front of a high school classroom was to see a master at work.
“I’m on fire,” she would tell her 12th-graders in Room 204 at Palisades Charter High School, emphasizing the point by wearing a red plastic firefighter’s helmet. Yet, even after more than half a century of imparting a love of Homer, Camus, Faulkner and Joyce to her youthful charges, she never seemed to burn out.
Each semester for more than 50 years, into her 90s, Gilbert lectured on dozens of classic works, including “The Great Gatsby,” “The Iliad” and “The Stranger.” In her spare time, she coached Academic Decathlon, traveled the world and avidly supported the UCLA Bruins men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Gilbert, an award-winning English teacher who for a time was the oldest full-time teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and whose longevity and passion in the classroom made her a newspaper and TV celebrity, died of age-related causes Monday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, her grandson David Gilbert said. “Mama G,” as she was known, was 95. She had retired from teaching during the 2012-13 school year.
“Rose Gilbert was an extraordinary teacher who changed lives and inspired her students on a daily basis,” J.J. Abrams, the Emmy-winning creator of “Lost” and “Alias” who was Gilbert’s student in the 1980s, said in an email. “She was already a legend when I took her class, and she went on to teach for another 30 years. She will be deeply missed by all who knew her and learned from her. I’m sure she’d find many mistakes in this paragraph, and she’d be right.”
Pam Magee, Palisades Charter’s executive director and principal, said her staff would work with the family to arrange a memorial at the school early next year. “This was where she dedicated much of her life,” Magee said. “She has been here from the time they broke dirt to build this school.”
One of Gilbert’s proudest accomplishments was the school’s Maggie Gilbert Aquatic Center, named in honor of her daughter, a swimmer and scholar who died in 2004. Gilbert donated $2 million and lent the school $750,000 to complete the center in 2010.
“She wanted all students to have exposure to swimming and learning how to swim,” said Brooke King, the center’s aquatics director. “The swimmers here were all posting [about her] on Facebook. They were extremely affected by her passing.”
David Gilbert recalled that his grandmother was motivated to build the center after falling and sustaining a head injury in the Australian rain forest several years ago while traveling with the UCLA women’s basketball team.
“If she wasn’t up in front of a class teaching, she was out with somebody doing something all the time,” he said. “She was a tough person to keep up with. She never stopped.”
Rose Gilbert was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 2, 1918, to Abraham and Ida Rubin. Her parents were Polish immigrants, and she grew up poor in Boyle Heights. After graduating from UCLA in 1940, she taught briefly at University High School, then 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 later became a successful builder and developer.
Rose brought Maggie to the marriage. Sam had two sons, Robert and Michael.
It was Sam who encouraged her to get back into the classroom, saying she was “born to teach.” She returned to University High, then started at what is now Palisades Charter in 1961.
Sam Gilbert served as mentor and advisor to many UCLA basketball players. His close connections drew scrutiny because some of the services and favors he provided team members violated NCAA rules.
In 1981, he emerged as the central figure in an NCAA investigation that led to two years’ probation for the school’s team. He died in 1987 and was posthumously charged in a federal indictment with racketeering and money laundering in connection with a Florida marijuana smuggling ring.
Gilbert defended her husband’s actions with the UCLA players, saying he was “helping the kids.”
After he died, she inherited millions and the house he had built for them in Pacific Palisades, which was filled with souvenir plates and sculptures from their many trips.
In addition to sons Robert and Michael, she is survived by six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
In March, Palisades officially named a drama classroom after Gilbert, who had donated $1 million to renovate that classroom and an auditorium. To administrators, faculty and students, however, the event was also a way to recognize her enduring love of teaching and Pali High that had lasted more than half a century.
A few minutes before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Gilbert confided that she had already found another job. “It’s at the Venice Family Clinic,” she said. “I’m helping women who’ve been battered.”
On Tuesday, clinic staffers recalled the thoroughly modern nonagenarian who volunteered her skills each Wednesday.
“Rose had a strength of character and conviction any of us would be lucky to have at any age,” said Laney Kapgan, the clinic’s chief development officer. “She helped us out with everything, including domestic violence programs. We put her editing skills to use, too, in production of our publications and outreach materials.
“Strange to say the passing of someone in their 90s would be a surprise,” Kapgan added. “But Rose had a life spirit, clarity of mind and commitment to volunteering that was incredible and inspiring.”