Gee's neckwear: untying the mystery
Published: Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Updated: Friday, June 15, 2012 22:06
Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee was ranked the nation's best public university president by Time magazine in 2009. But here on campus, students know him as the man in the bow tie.
"It's the most common question I get," Gee said, pointing to the blue and yellow polka-dotted fabric tied around his neck.
The small piece of clothing has become Gee's trademark.
"It's become a part of who he is," said Patricia Cunningham, OSU fashion historian and lecturer, and Lantern columnist. The bow tie "is a part of his personality. It's unique, and that draws students to him."
During a survey of OSU students conducted by The Lantern before Gee's quarterly visit to the newsroom, many students responded that they wanted to hear more about Gee's bow ties.
The bow tie tradition began 51 years ago when Gee was 15 years old. He was sitting in an ophthalmology office with his dad in Salt Lake City when he saw a bow tie for the first time.
"The guy sitting next to me had one, and I asked him what it was, kind of curious," Gee said during his Oct. 6 meeting with The Lantern editorial board. "He undid it and then he tied it again, and I said, ‘How cool.'
"So I got my father to buy me a couple, and that's how it all started," he said.
Gee now has a collection of more than 1,000 bow ties.
"I try not to wear the same one but once a year," Gee said. "Now this one you won't see for another at least 365 days — maybe another three years or so because I have so many of them."
Gee said his daughter likes to give him bow ties as gifts, but he gets them regularly from Carrot & Gibbs, a bow tie company that supplies stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.
"When I was a president at the University of Colorado, they would send me their samples," Gee said. "They just sent them to me (Oct. 5), and I sat there picking at a few, as a matter of fact."
Neil Borin, founder of Carrot & Gibbs and a fellow bow-tie wearer, remembers working with Gee when he started his company in 1987.
"I remember going over to his office when he was the president at the University of Colorado," Borin said. "He would look at fabrics with us."
Although Borin said he has not sent Gee bow tie samples for quite a few years, a local Carrot & Gibbs store is likely responsible for the recent gift.
No matter how Gee gets his hands on the bow ties, Borin is happy to have Gee as a customer.
"Gordon Gee is a good-looking guy and wears the bow tie well," Borin said. "He truly is a special guy — he's a gentleman. We're proud to have him."
Borin said he would love to collaborate with Gee to create a special bow tie just for him.
"That would be a pleasure to do. In fact, that is a goal I have," Borin said. "It would be really fun to create a signature bow tie."
One of Gee's many bow ties has even made a journey into space. Richard M. Linnehan, an OSU alumnus, borrowed one of Gee's scarlet and gray bow ties to take aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 2008. It was the first bow tie to be carried into space, OSU officials said.
The bow tie sensation has become so popular that, when shown one, many on the OSU campus instantly think of the university's president. Or at least that was the theory behind a Gee-themed OSU flag created by local flag maker Mary Leavitt. The flag features a block "O" with a bow tie underneath.
"I just like the bow ties. They identify him," said Leavitt, the 74-year-old owner of The Flag Lady's Flag Store in Columbus. "So I called up licensing and asked if I could do a bow tie flag for Dr. Gee." Leavitt was quick to create the Gee-themed flag and send it off for his approval.
"They said Dr. Gee would have to approve it, so I sent it over to him," Leavitt said. "Within a minute, we heard back from him. He just loves it. He flies it at his house."
Gee isn't the only one fond of the flag. Leavitt said it sells well at her North High Street shop.
"People love it," she said. "It just means so much to me that I can do this for him … He's just so down-to-earth and yet so brilliant. I just think the world of him."
The traits Leavitt loves about Gee seem to be common among bow-tie wearers. The university president joins notable bow-tie wearers such as Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and even Disney's Donald Duck.
"I think that someone who wears a bow tie isn't afraid to be different," Cunningham said.
Bow ties might come in second place to long neck ties in the popularity race, but not in Gee's mind.
"I do not own a long tie," he said. "In fact, I don't know how to tie a long tie."
Gee can't say whether he has ever influenced someone to wear a bow tie but said he does know he has sparked student interest in them. Bow-tying lessons are a top request.
"What I need to do, twice a year, is to have a bow-tying lesson," Gee said.
Until that happens, students can get Gee's instruction with a short video posted on YouTube.
"Now I want you to know that I'm doing this without a mirror," Gee said in the YouTube video. "Not many people in the world can tie a bow tie without a mirror."
Gee prides himself on his neckwear, so don't ask him to pick among the most beloved of his collection.
"I have no favorites," Gee said.
But he does hold a special place for certain colors.
"I do have some favorite scarlet and gray ones," Gee said with a smile.