Stuyvesant Alum Turns 100 — A Profile of Jack Gilburne

Jack Gilburne, Stuyvesant class of 1942, reflects on his life experiences as a Stuy alum and Air Force veteran on his 100th birthday.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Diego Segalini

Though it has been 82 years since he graduated from Stuyvesant, Jack Gilburne (‘42) still recalls his time at Stuyvesant and the profound impact it had on his life. Having experienced an entirely different Stuyvesant and graduating in the middle of World War II, Gilburne recounted how his experiences at the school has molded his character and life—continuing even now, as he reaches his 100th birthday. 

Gilburne’s experience at Stuyvesant was vastly different from modern-day Stuyvesant in numerous ways, one of which was its old location. Until 1992, the campus was located on 14th Street in StuyTown, after which it was named. “You knew it was an old school, because the steps up and down were in wood, and there were one or two spots on the steps going up where the wood wore off, and you can see where the students before you stood,” Gilburne described. 

The structure and scheduling of classes was also very different, as many students took evening sessions on top of the regular school day. This helped accommodate the increasing size of the student body: half of the senior class would graduate in January or February, and the other half in June. “I used to go all the way back to Williamsburg by train at three o'clock and come back for night classes at six,” Gilburne recalled. “The professors or the teachers would have to come at 6 o'clock at night and have a class, and [the quantitative chemistry teacher] would sit on a chair watching us find out what the hell was in that [chemical compound]. Half the time we would cheat because he was sleeping, and he found out about it.”

Furthermore, Gilburne acknowledged that his education at Stuyvesant was limited compared to current times, largely due to differences in social norms. For example, women were not allowed to attend Stuyvesant until 1969. “I think the female equation makes the most devastating, completely different from what I experienced,” he said. “My experience was not as broad as it could have been. Black people were not looked at in the same manner that they are today. It was racist, even in New York.” Differences in the status quo robbed Gilburne and many of his peers of learning with inclusivity and diversity.

Yet, despite all these differences, Stuyvesant was the same at its core, even 82 years ago: it was a center for academic rigor and growth. It was the first specialized high school to implement entrance exams as of 1934, which contributed to this strong academic environment. “We used to have nine classes in Stuyvesant 14th Street, and the nine classes usually were classes for guys that were pushing a little harder and usually [offered] college credit, quantitative chemistry, qualitative chemistry,” Gilburne explained. Unsurprisingly, this often encouraged competition among highly motivated students. “All of a sudden, you are [with] maybe 20 guys who are as smart as you are, or smarter,” he said. “If he got a nine, I wanted a 10. If he got a 10, I want an 11.” 

For Gilburne, this competition was not only motivation, but also a means of bringing students together. During his time at Stuyvesant, there was a rampant sense of camaraderie. 

“The old school, it was God's gift. Because wherever I went, whatever I did — the training, the dedicated teachers of that time — the patriotism of the students was beyond,” Gilburne said. Some of this fellowship stemmed from patriotism, which was high at the time due to the ongoing World War II. “I went into the service in 1942 or ‘43, and in those days, everyone was patriotic,” he added. 

Coming out of Stuyvesant, Gilburne sought to earn a degree in chemical engineering, but his path in life would quickly change. “One of [my father’s] clients was a major stockholder of the DuPont chemical company. He went to her. And she said to him, ‘Ben, I’ve known you for 20 years. Tell your son not to go into chemical engineering. He's going to have a hard time.’ When that happened, I decided not to go to college right away. And I went to work for a textile conversion mill in downtown New York,” Gilburne said.

Gilburne quickly gained prominence at the conversion mill. “Pretty soon everybody in this tremendous warehouse, whenever they got an order they wouldn't know where the hell it was, they would come to me. I'm 18 years old, I got ambitious. I went out to the big guy, and I said, ‘Listen, I'm running this damn place. Get me paid as much as they got in charge.’ He said to me, ‘Jack, if you want to get ahead, quit your job and go to college.’ I said to him, ‘What college did you go to?’ ‘Georgia Tech,’” Gilburne said. Unimpressed with Georgia Tech’s textile engineering program, Gilburne instead graduated from the school specializing in ceramic engineering.

Upon graduating, Gilburne found himself in the Georgia Tech unit of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), a military program that prepares college-educated students for military service. “They were given orders — they were setting up fortifications to shoot down Japanese planes in New Guinea. I was horrified going to the jungle. So I went up to my commanding officer and said, ‘How the hell can I get out of the coast artillery?’” He said to me, ‘why don’t you try getting into the Air Force? They shoot your plane down, you die quick and early,’” Gilburne said. He then applied for and transferred into the Air Force.

Gilburne’s experience as a pilot in the Air Force was incredibly unforgiving. “So I'm going up over this obstacle course [while training], and as I go over to the other side, I feel something punctured my leg. It's a nail. I'm stuck on top of the six foot fence with a nail in my foot. Nobody stopped for me— they had to get to the end of the obstacle course. That's how tough it was,” Gilburne said. In spite of the challenges, Gilburne remains deeply proud of being a US veteran. “Let me tell you, when you see a guy with a pair of wings that flies one of those fast planes, take your hat off to him because it requires a lot of know-how,” Gilburne said.

Shortly after leaving the Air Force, Gilburne moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. “New York is New York, but lifestyle wise, my God, it's a nut house,” Gilburne said. Today, he still lives there with his granddaughter, Jess. Both his son and grandson have graduated from Cornell, and his son now works at the Guggenheim in New York.

In May 2024, Gilburne celebrated his 100th birthday. Even now, 82 years after he graduated from Stuyvesant, Gilburne still fondly reminisces on his high school experience. “Let me tell you, if it is to be that I reach that birthday, I think Stuyvesant allowed me to do it,” Gilburne said. 

Looking back on his time at Stuyvesant, Gilburne recognizes how different his experience was from the experience offered now. Yet Stuyvesant has always been a place of vast opportunities for students, and Gilburne hopes that the Stuyvesant classes today recognize this privilege. “Well, you're lucky. You're lucky you got what you want, but you're also lucky that you have a fabulous experience. I can truly say it's invaluable for your future if you're able to take advantage of it. And keeping track of your co-students is important. Unfortunately, my co-students, a lot of them went down in flames over Germany and over Japan. We didn't have the same benefits that you had,” Gilburne said.

Gilburne’s greatest message for today’s Stuyvesant students is to be grateful for the available experiences. The patriotism he grew up with during the era of WWII is just as applicable now as it was then. “It seems like [everyone in the US is] class against players, women against men, when actually the one thing that everybody has is the ability and privilege of living in this country. There is no other country like it,” Gilburne said. His story is a testament to just how much the US has improved over the course of the 20th century, as well as how pivotal Stuyvesant can be in a person’s life.