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Alumni Profile: Dan Gibson takes on the complexities of prosecuting legal cases

By Andrew De Young

Dan Gibson ('75) was on campus in early May to pick up his son, Nate, a freshman communication major.

Dan Gibson ('75) was on campus in early May to pick up his son, Nate, a freshman communication major.

The story of Dan Gibson’s life is, like that of so many others, a story of missed chances and seemingly random changes. It’s a story of a second choice—law school, to be specific—that turned into a lifelong career. But Gibson doesn’t seem to mind. He enjoys telling his story, in fact, and even takes a great deal of comfort in the fact that he is blessed to be able to tell his story at all.

“My first love was for teaching,” says Gibson, who graduated in 1975 with a degree in history. “Law school, to be honest, was my second choice—what I really wanted to do was go to graduate school.”

In an effort to make that initial plan a reality, he had applied for a Danforth fellowship in the waning months of his senior year. When the fellowship went to one of his classmates instead, he had to make a new plan. It was a disappointment, to be sure, but it is also partially responsible for getting him to where he is today, with a wife, three kids, and a job as a civil lawyer in Washington’s Whatcom County. It’s a place, he says, that he wouldn’t think of trading.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some bumps along the way. For the first two years after graduation, he taught at Chatham Christian Secondary School in Chatham, Ontario. There, he was involved in a variety of things, doing everything from teaching typing to coaching sports teams.

He smiles. “After my time there, you might say that the first year of law school was relatively easy.” He can laugh about it today, but he also acknowledges that his time at the University of Washington Law School was one of the tougher chapters in his story.

“Law school was a place where people were challenged on a level that they hadn’t been before, both intellectually and personally,” he says, adding that two of his classmates committed suicide in the midst of their studies. “And these were bright, capable people.”

It was in law school that he gained a deeper appreciation for the education he had received at Dordt College. He says that he was amazed at the perspective he had been given on a wide variety of fields, a perspective that many of his fellow students hadn’t been blessed with. However, he says that perspective wasn’t always enough.

“The emphasis at Dordt is on engaging culture, and that’s good,” he says. “But engagement must proceed with a vital connection to a flesh and blood congregation. If you don’t have that, you will not stand your ground.” When he was in law school, much of his support came from First Christian Reformed Church in Seattle, a congregation that he says helped “keep my head on straight.”

After law school came a short clerkship in Washington’s King County, which helped lead into Gibson’s next position as a prosecutor in the same county. And it was in this job—a job which, as a college student, he had never planned on holding—that he rediscovered his original passion for history and teaching.

“Criminal prosecution is kind of a rush,” he says. “As an attorney, it’s almost like you’re on stage. But I found that what I enjoyed most was closing arguments—what you really had to do at that point was tell a story, weaving together all this evidence to tell it.”

It is this storytelling aspect that has stuck with Gibson through his three years in King County, seven more years as a criminal prosecutor in Whatcom County, and now as a civil lawyer for a variety of public offices. As a former history major at Dordt, the storytelling aspect is something he finds fascinating.

“History is basically storytelling,” he says. “For the believer, the constant challenge is to tell that story with integrity.”

It’s a challenge, he adds, that is particularly important for a lawyer—how do you tell the story in a way that justice is served? Gibson faced that challenge in a very real way when he prosecuted capital cases, one in King County and one in Whatcom County. In one case, he says, he and his team pursued the death penalty and got it; in another case, they chose not to pursue the death penalty.

“You have to recognize the complexity of those situations,” he says of both cases. “One had better take that with the utmost seriousness.” He says that in the case where they chose not to pursue the death penalty, the issue was complicated by the mental illness of the accused.

“You looked at this person and knew that he was mentally ill,” says Gibson. “You struggle with that internally—how should I tell this story to be truthful to the reality of the case?”

In such cases, Gibson recognizes that the judicial system isn’t a heal-all. He says that there are much deeper issues at stake—that of mental illness, for example—that a lawyer has very little power to address. One of the times when he felt the limitations of the law most acutely was when he spent some time on paternity cases, in which he was employed to establish a basis for child support payments from deadbeat dads.

“You often wonder what it is you’re actually doing,” he admits, adding that all he did was establish a financial relationship, not heal a marriage or repair a broken father-child relationship.

Altogether, though, Gibson still recognizes the value of storytelling, both in his profession and in a much broader context. It especially has value, he says, for the Christian in today’s society.

“I work in a setting where it is often illegal to give expression to your faith,” he says. “But you’re there, and you’re a believer, and you know what the storyline is—the story of God’s grace and his sovereignty.”

It’s a storyline that has tremendous meaning in Gibson’s profession, to be sure, but it has had great significance in his life as well. Unplanned as it may often have seemed, Gibson’s life has borne the marks of God’s grace and sovereignty, including the wife he never would have met had he not gone to law school, the children he never would have had but for his wife, and the son who has brought the story full circle by attending his dad’s alma mater.

Altogether, it’s a pretty good story. And it’s a story Dan Gibson loves to tell.