Gabriel Jabbour is soft-spoken. Quiet. A bit guarded, perhaps. A conversation with him feels like a game of Scrabble—quick, short answers, each one a building block.
It’s not that Jabbour has nothing to say; he gladly answers questions, but only with the exact detail required—no more and no less. With his skill with language, it should come as no surprise that he happens to be an expert politician. A former mayor and City Council member of Orono, he’s helped shape the Lake Minnetonka community into the place it is today.
But Jabbour’s story starts long before local government. In fact, it begins in Syria, a far cry from the political waters of Lake Minnetonka.
Growing up, Jabbour came from a family of academics. Obtaining a Ph.D. or master’s degree wasn’t just a goal, but an expectation. With this in mind, Jabbour came to the United States to attend the pre-med program at Gustavus Adolphus College. He chose Gustavus from a college handbook because of the high acceptance rate for pre-med students.
While there, he met his future wife. Although they would later divorce, it was Jabbour’s first step toward building his life in her hometown of Orono. It didn’t take long before Jabbour realized Gustavus wasn’t the right fit, and he ended up going back to Syria for a short time. He never finished college, instead moving to Orono in 1972 for good with his first wife when he was 20-years-old.
“It is kind of like being born at the age of 20,” Jabbour says. “You don’t know how to speak English and you don’t know any of the habits. You start without any of the local baggage, but then you form an attitude about issues with more intelligence because you’ve been faced with those issues at the age of 20.”
What Jabbour encountered in Orono in the early 1970s was a sewer system running through his neighborhood. He began attending city council meetings, hoping to make a change. It wasn’t long before he got swept up in city politics, and realized he’d found exactly where he belonged.
“The thing that is absolutely stunning to me is how inclusive some of the original populace of Orono are,” says Jabbour. Even as the ultimate outsider, he was accepted immediately for his willingness to jump in to any situation and help get work done.
Before Jabbour began giving back in an official capacity in local politics, he focused on starting several businesses, including West Photo in Northeast Minneapolis near St. Anthony Main, and four marinas, most notably the lake-area’s Tonka Bay Marina. It was during this time Jabbour also started a family, with daughter Gigi born in 1972. His divorce followed, and Jabbour ended up doing most of the child-rearing himself.
Says Gigi, “From about 11-years-old, it was just the two of us. [My dad] raised me to know how important it is to help people even if you don’t know them. He has always been the type of person who will pull over if he sees someone who needs help.”
Gigi speaks of the side of Jabbour that he himself rarely expresses. His charity work is extensive: From giving scholarships to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design through West Photo since 1988 to helping fund MCAD’s auditorium, Jabbour has been a dedicated supporter of the arts. Back home on Lake Minnetonka, Gigi reminisces about going out on the boat after a storm to seek out anyone who may have suffered damage or injuries to help them out.
Jabbour brought that same dedication to local politics. When he was elected to the Orono City Council in 1990, he began guiding the city in a new direction. At the time, Orono was in litigation with Long Lake over the sewer issue that affected his first home. It was Jabbour’s goal to unite the two cities and stop the lawsuits. After serving on the council for six years, he was elected mayor of Orono. When he entered office, the legal fight was still raging, but by the time his term was up in 2000, Jabbour had brokered a peace between the two communities.
Among Jabbour’s other big accomplishments is creating the Dakota Trail—now one of the most popular in the state—and cleaning up Big Island.
“In the early 1900s, it was no big deal to take all the garbage and throw it in the wetland,” Jabbour says. “We had to undo all of that. I physically took my own equipment out there and got it cleaned it up.”
These are longstanding projects, and the type of work that inspires others in Orono, says current Mayor Lilli McMillan, who met Jabbour when she was on the park council in 1992.
“He was very dedicated to helping out the city, both as a council member and a resident,” McMillan says. “‘Passionate’ is a good word. When I first came on the park commission, he told me how important it was to take the job seriously and dedicate time to the city. That is something he really believes firmly in.”
Ultimately, Jabbour’s goal is just to make the community a little better every day.
“When [Gigi] was born I was committed to try and see the lake better off when I leave than when I found it,” Jabbour says. There’s little question he has already done just that.