Attendees lined up across the street from Gibbs' home to hold up a message of thanks. Credit: Em Espey

On Saturday afternoon, a school bus pulled up outside the quiet Germantown home of retired Robert E. Peary High School teacher Vincent Gibbs. Dozens of Peary graduates filed out into the cold wearing Santa hats and mittens to sing carols and pay a surprise tribute to their beloved teacher.

“He changed a lot of us in many ways,” Peary graduate Joe Fabiszewski said. “He’s a very compassionate person. He always has time for people — even people he doesn’t know.”

Gibbs, now 82, taught English and drama at Peary from 1962 until its doors closed in 1984. During that time, he directed over 40 theater productions and, as calculated by Peary graduate Rich Collins, influenced the lives of over 10,000 students.

Among friends and neighbors, Gibbs is known as “Mr. Christmas” for his immense dedication to decorating for the holidays. Every year he would deck his yard with lights and garland. In his dining room he would set up a nearly life-sized nativity scene.

Gibbs is battling cancer, and for the first time in decades his yard remains bare this December.

Paula Sweeney, a Broadway performer, has remained close with her former teacher over the 50 years since she graduated from Peary in 1972, frequently calling Gibbs and meeting for lunch.

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She hatched the idea for the surprise tribute after an October phone conversation when Gibbs asked her, “Do you think I really made a difference?” She said she knew immediately that she had to do something to make sure he knew what an impact he’d had on his students.

She chuckled as she took the microphone on Saturday and called up to Gibbs, “I love you. Don’t be mad at me for doing this.”

Sweeney worked closely with Fabiszewski, class of ’69, to coordinate Saturday’s event. They presented Gibbs with a signed Christmas card and an award from his students reading: “To Vincent Gibbs. You taught us to reach for the stars.”

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Carolers sang holiday favorites like “The First Noel” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” led by Sweeney. Attendees held up hand-made posters while Gibbs watched from his bedroom window, and several speakers took the microphone to pay heartfelt tributes to their teacher.

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Sniffles could be heard across the yard as Fabiszewski played an audio clip of Gibbs reading from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a story he was known for reading to his English students every year.

“It was a performance,” Fabiszewski said of Gibbs’ readings. “It was like a radio play. He did everybody’s voice and made it very theatrical. If you mention it to any student of his, they’re going to recall it.”

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Patty Moscoso, a former student of Gibbs’ who teaches at Gerstell Academy in Carroll County, said she plays the Steinbeck recording for her fourth-grade students. She said they wanted her to tell him “thank you” on their behalf.

Former student John Seng live-streamed the event on Facebook for over 117 former students who couldn’t be there in person.

Paula Sweeney led carolers in singing “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, one of Gibbs’ personal favorites. Credit: Em Espey

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Gibbs waved down to the crowd from his bedroom window, visibly touched.

“I’m so overwhelmed,” he said. “This is one of the most memorable occasions in my life. I’m so happy there are people out there who can carry on so many of the things that I truly believe.”

Even after the program ended, students milled around calling up to the window to thank Gibbs and wish him happy holidays. He told attendees he plans to host a large holiday party next Christmas.

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“I want to see every one of you next year,” he said. “God bless the spirit of Christmas.”