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Gilbert Johns, a Colorado College professor and dean, who also helped found the now-defunct Colorado Opera Festival in the ‘70s, and was a Gazette arts critic at large for a decade, died Wednesday in Chicago. He was 89.

Former Colorado College dean and Gazette arts critic at large Gilbert Johns died last week in Chicago.

The self-described "bon vivant," who also co-founded the now-defunct Colorado Opera Festival, was 89. He's survived by his longtime companion, Iris; sons Christopher and Alexander; and four grandchildren.

"He had an amazing wanderlust and curiosity," Christopher said. "He traveled all his life. He was a lifelong educator. Even before he was teaching, he was grasping for knowledge and wanting to know more about the world."

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Born in Oak Park, Ill., in 1931, Johns moved to Colorado Springs in 1962 to become a  behavioral psychology professor at CC. Three years later he became dean of summer session, and started a summer arts program that attracted nationally-known musicians and performers.

"He was an entrepreneurial character with a real devotion to the arts," said CC's Timothy Fuller, a political science professor. "Professionally he was a professor of psychology and an empirical scientist. But his real love was the arts, particularly music, and his biggest role at CC was fostering the presence of arts on campus. His love for arts and the ability to promote them was extraordinary."

Johns and CC music professor Donald P. Jenkins, also the former conductor of the Colorado Springs Chorale, founded the opera festival in 1970, which produced "Cosi fan Tutte," "Madame Butterfly," "Carmen" and "Turandot," among many others, until its end in 2000.

"It is an unusually interesting repertory, and Mr. Johns brings it in on a budget of not much over $150,000. Naturally he could not manage without the help of the college. His audience is solidly behind him, unusual repertory and all. Mr. Johns says that his festival has the largest subscription season of any summer opera. Semanticists may take issue, and the Santa Fe Opera may raise an eyebrow, but the Colorado Opera Festival box office clearly says one thing: the seasons have been 100 per cent sold out," Harold Schonberg wrote for The New York Times in 1978.

Jenkins remembers his old friend's affinity for wearing a freshly-starched shirt with a necktie and suit jacket, his mustache and penchant for excellent cigars: "He was a brilliant fellow, full of life, wit, ideas. He could be charming. He was also opinionated and difficult and uncompromising. He brought much of lasting importance to the college."

About 10 years later, Johns pitched a weekly arts column to the Gazette, in which he channeled that opinionated nature. He critiqued theater, dance, classical music and movies for the next decade. He also was a gourmet chef who specialized in French cuisine — Christopher remembers growing up with regular four and five-course meals, finished by a cheese plate. Johns parlayed that  into writing dining reviews, including his most famous one, Fuller said, in which he reviewed three different Broadmoor restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a Colorado Springs magazine.

"When I was young, I would wait for The Gazette to arrive and see if Gilbert mentioned me in a review," Colorado Springs actor Robert Bryan Rais wrote in a Facebook post. "It was like getting noticed by Walter Kerr, or something."

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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