ELYRIA — After the protests and allegations made by Oberlin College students, 91-year-old Allyn W. Gibson fears that that when he dies, someone will write the word “racist” across his tombstone, his daughter-in-law testified.
Lorna Gibson, the wife of Allyn W. Gibson’s son David Gibson, took the stand Wednesday in the civil trial between Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College.
Gibson’s sued the college and Meredith Raimondo for libel, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, intentional infliction of emotional distress and trespass in 2017. The bakery also is suing the college for negligent hiring, retention and supervision.
Lorna Gibson said the protests and the aftermath have had a dramatic effect on her husband and father-in-law, who are both owners of Gibson’s Bakery. Lorna Gibson said that after her mother-in-law died in 1999, the business took on an even bigger role in Allyn W. Gibson’s life.
“That store became his reason to get up every day,” she said. “He was there as early as 5 or 6 in the morning, and he stayed there until after midnight every night. He loved to be at the store. He loved to socialize with everybody. It just kept him busy.”
She said all of that changed though in 2016 when a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from Allyn D. Gibson, who is the son of David Gibson. Allyn D. Gibson followed the student out of the store and the two got into a physical altercation.
Two other students got involved, and police have said when they arrived the three students were hitting Allyn D. Gibson while he was on the ground.
Allyn D. Gibson is white and the students are black, and the incident became racially charged. All three students pleaded guilty in August to misdemeanor charges and read statements into the record acknowledging that Allyn D. Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.
Since that time, testimony has said the bakery’s business has been cut in half, causing staffing cuts to be made. Testimony also said that foot traffic in the store had decreased drastically.
The decrease in business has had an effect on Allyn W. Gibson, Lorna Gibson said.
“They did because he didn’t have that many people to come in and socialize with,” she said. “People weren’t coming into the store. You could see that it made him sad and upset. He just wasn’t as happy as he was prior to that.”
She also said it has had an effect on Allyn W. Gibson’s mental state.
“It upsets him completely,” she said. “He was so well-known in the community, and now he’s made comments to us that he’s afraid now that when he passes away, they’ll write ‘racist’ on his tombstone.”
Lorna Gibson also said the aftermath of the 2016 incident has had an effect on her husband, who is the fourth generation of the family to run the business, which began in the 1800s.
“He was upset. Everything pretty much devastated him,” she said of David Gibson. “To have the lies being told about him and the store, it was very upsetting. He kind of got withdrawn and wouldn’t speak to people. He just tried to internalize a lot of it. It was a very upsetting time.”
On Wednesday morning Ben Jones, the vice president of communications with Oberlin College, was called to the stand as an adverse witness, meaning his testimony was compelled by subpoena and not voluntary.
Jones was asked about a statement released by the college days after the student senate at the college demanded the college condemn the alleged actions of the Gibsons in the shoplifting incident. The Gibsons’ attorney, Lee Plakas, asked Jones if there was “a figurative gun pointed at the college’s head” after the student senate’s demand.
“I believed that we needed to acknowledge the situation in an attempt to calm things down,” Jones answered.
Plakas then walked the jury through several email exchanges between administrators with the college, including Jones and Raimondo, with members of the student senate. At one point the students were sent a draft of the college’s statement and asked for “suggestions or concerns.”
The college also said it would commit every resource to seek the truth about the incident between Allyn D. Gibson and the three students. Plakas, however, alleged that Jones had made up his mind on the matter shortly after the incident rather than “seeking the truth” on the matter.
Plakas showed an email conversation between an employee of the college who worked under Jones.
The employee wrote that “the students are on the wrong side of the protest” and “refuse to hear anything that doesn’t fit their narrative.”
Jones responded that the “Gibsons’ hands were not clean” and that the incident with Allyn D. Gibson was “not an isolated incident, but a pattern.” He also said the police report on the incident was “bullshit.”
The employee then told Jones that she had talked with 15 “persons of color” from Oberlin who were disgusted and embarrassed by the students’ actions against the Gibsons. She also said she found the “misdirected rage very disturbing.”
Jones later explained that his feelings about the Oberlin police report on the incident were because he felt the police had talked only with the Gibsons on the matter.
Plakas asked Jones if the college issued a statement after the three students were convicted on charges in Lorain County Common Pleas Court in connection with the 2016 incident.
“Would it have killed Oberlin College to stand up as an adult and say, ‘We got it wrong; our students got it wrong? We shouldn’t have rushed to judgment?’” Plakas said. “Would it have killed you and Oberlin College to do that?”
“This wasn’t our situation, sir,” Jones said. “This was between the students and the Gibsons. We don’t speak for the students.”
“So you wash your hands of whatever the students do,” Plakas said. “Is that right?”
“I wouldn’t characterize it that way,” Jones said.
“… If you’re involved in something, and your involvement ended up, in part, contributing to harm or damage or hurt, you can’t just wash your hands and walk away when you realize you were wrong, can you?” Plakas said.
“I don’t believe we were wrong or involved,” Jones said.
Testimony in the trial is set to resume at 9 a.m. today.
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