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Remembering a Literary Luminary

Thomas Gillcrist

Known for his potent intellect, quiet leadership, good nature, and love of fast cars, Prof. Tom Gillcrist [English and humanities 1962–2002] researched and taught courses on William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, colonial and postcolonial novels, and the Bloomsbury group, defying the convention to choose one side of the Atlantic on which to focus his scholarship. In conferences, he saw himself as an adviser to students, not a critic. He was deeply admired by his colleagues and students. 

Gillcrist was born in 1934 in Boston and grew up in the South. His father supervised the construction of military training bases, and his family settled in Suffolk, Virginia. “He used to tell me what it was like to grow up in the home town of Mr. Peanut,” says Prof. Stefan Kapsch [poli sci 1974–2005], whose office neighbored Gillcrist’s for many years. “He had a great sense of humor; he loved to laugh.” Gillcrist earned a BA in English from Duke University and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He received a Danforth Fellowship to study at Harvard, where he earned his master’s. In 1956 he married Molly Meffert, a fellow Duke student, writer, and educator. They had two children, Andrew Myles and Amy Katherine.

In his professional life, teaching was paramount for Gillcrist. He arrived at Reed in 1962 at a time when jobs were more plentiful for people with his qualifications. He selected Reed because of its emphasis on teaching and the humanities program, where (in addition to his service to the English department) he remained a dedicated and favorite Hum 110 conference leader throughout his career. 

Gillcrist genuinely enjoyed teaching and he advised, encouraged, and took interest in all students, not just the most promising ones. He wanted to enable students to find literature valuable in their own way, and when he was proud of a student’s accomplishment it was on the merit of the achievement, not because of what he had done. “He wanted people to enjoy learning, but he didn’t want people to settle for easy,” says Prof. Jay Dickson [1996–99, 2001–], who succeeded Gillcrist in the English department. Treva Adams ’99 commented, “I remember well his gentle way of pushing me to explore new perspectives. I always walked away from our conversations with new—and sometimes surprising—knowledge, his droll humor coming to the fore. I’m incredibly grateful to have known him.” 

Gillcrist never took the easy way out or his job for granted. He did not rely on old notes for material he had previously taught, but reread and rethought. His neighbors recall that at night his study light—under which he spent many hours preparing lectures, class notes, and penning comments on student papers—was always the last light in the neighborhood still on.

An example of his formidable intellect and painstaking work, his Hum 110 lectures were legendary, impressing the famously tough crowd of students and faculty assembled in the lecture hall. Prof. Dickson said, “One lecture I will always remember was on Euripides, and was so gorgeously constructed that it withheld its actual thesis argument until the final sentence of the entire lecture, at which point the entire structure fitted perfectly into place like an elegantly constructed puzzlebox. The junior faculty up in the balcony were all astonished, but when I congratulated Tom afterwards, he responded with his usual gracious modesty and mordant sense of humor.” When Gillcrist retired, he was asked to prepare five of his lectures for publication.

Tom had a distinct manner of speaking, which Dickson described as “one part Virginia Tidewater accent, one part Old Harvard, one part Johnsonian melancholia (for though he was a cheerful man at work, he would sigh quite a bit and seem to have his thoughts elsewhere).” He had a wide-ranging curiosity and an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, composers, classical singers, conductors, and automobiles. 

In addition to his immeasurable work as a mentor to students, Gillcrist was a distinguished scholar. He was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a Danforth Graduate Fellow, and was awarded a Fulbright lectureship to Kyonghee Hee University in Seoul, followed by a U.S. government-sponsored lecture tour in Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. 

After he retired he led a faculty book club, tackling difficult works such as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Members included Tom’s wife Molly, Paul Bragdon [president 1971–88] and Nancy Bragdon, Frank Gwilliam [biology 1957–96] and Marjorie Gwilliam, Tom Dunne [chemistry 1963–95], Marshall Cronyn [chemistry 1952–1989], and Jay Dickson. 

“We all listened well to each other, and learned from one another,” says Dickson. “But I think what was most remarkable for me about that decade-plus when Tom was our leader was how much we learned from him. I am very lucky in that my literary education did not stop at the end of graduate school, for I feel I had one more great teacher and mentor who shared with us not simply his great love for fine literature, but his generosity in discussion, his kindness and praise, his surprising insights and analogies and allusions, and his merry spirits.”

Over the course of his career, Gillcrist focused on teaching rather than publication, and retirement afforded him the opportunity to work on his research. He took on projects such as serving as guest editor of a Nineteenth-Century Prose issue featuring Thomas Macaulay. Retirement also afforded him time to spend with his grandchildren. Gillcrist famously maintained, “Having grandchildren is the one thing in life that’s not overrated.” Another who was not overrated is Tom Gillcrist.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2016

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