I heard over the holidays that my college advisor, a Russian History professor named Abbott Gleason, known as Tom, died on Christmas Day after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. The fact that I took even a single history course in college, much less ended up a history major, was completely this man’s doing.
I left my public school education with a vow never to study history again and with a good enough score on the history Advanced Placement test to meet most universities’ requirements in the subject. Surely this was due more to my own self-absorption than to the shortcomings of my high school teachers, but the fact is, none of them had been able to awaken me to history’s charms.
I ended up at Brown University, which had no distribution requirements to thwart. These days, kids practically have to pick a major before they apply to college; back then, you usually had until junior year and Brown gave more freedom than most. So what to take? Though I wanted to be a writer, I perversely felt I should avoid literature classes, a mistake I’ve lived to regret as I’ve come to realize that literature is the closest thing I have to a religion, that the greater part of being a writer is being a reader, and that there will never be enough time to read all the great novels I missed. What I wouldn’t give now to have one of those Brown professors spoon-feed me “The Red and the Black” or “Jude the Obscure” or a dollop of Anthony Trollope.
But this was back when I was eighteen, so very sure of so many wrong ideas. The only class I signed up for from the English department was Poetry Workshop, because that was about my favorite subject: me. I took Hinduism because I had fallen hard for yoga and meditation and imagined that this was basically about me, too — though it turned out to be about a wacky, overpopulated, weirdly lovable ancient cosmology with 45 million Sanskrit vocabulary words.
I chose my other classes by asking around for the names of the rock star professors. One that kept coming up was this Russian History guy, Gleason. The class he had on the books for the fall of 1975, “Russia Before 1800,” sounded like a snoozefest and was limited to upperclassmen only. But since doing things I wasn’t allowed to do was an overriding passion of mine, I went to his office in the old Victorian house that was the History Department to beg entrance.
Gleason was a tall, lanky fellow with dark hair combed straight back from his high forehead and black horn-rimmed glasses, a kind of academic Clark Kent. And he was, it turns out, a superhero, with an uncanny power to change people’s lives using the unlikely weapon of the history of Russia, an epic saga made hilarious, tragic, and addictive by his telling of it (welcome to another 45 million foreign-language vocabulary words). Eight classes, six of them with him, and a seventy-five-page paper on Alexander Herzen later, I graduated a History major by accident.
With regard to the paper, for which I received an A-, the writing is “sparkling,” but “from the point of structure, things are not quite so uniformly positive.” He elucidates these shortcomings in four typed paragraphs on a sheet of paper before me now, fragile and ancient as the original First Folio of Shakespeare. “I found the quality of your conclusion slightly disorienting,” he writes but explains what I can do to fix it and encourages me to revise and submit to Clio, the journal of Brown’s history department.
Tom, 38 when I met him, was erudite, urbane, political, witty, brilliant, and all about YOU, you being his student. He had never met anyone quite like you, was bowled over by your abilities, was eager to help you find a research topic. He was always happy to see you in his office or meet for lunch on Thayer St., to have you over his house to drink wine and listen to jazz (he knew jazz like he knew Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible), to meet his wife and babysit his children. The desire to hang out with Gleason, to impress Gleason, to be worthy of Gleason’s attention drove generations of Brown history majors, a number of whom became scholars themselves. And if I can’t tell you why the words Nizhny-Novgorod are stuck in my head or decently explain perestroika, if I would have to consult Wikipedia even to give the basics on Alexander Herzen, he changed my life.
He was the first serious intellectual I ever met, and he took me seriously in a way that no one had before. He introduced me to the pleasures of research and study, showing me that a good mind was not just for getting high scores on tests without working very hard; hard mental work was something to devote one’s life to, not avoid. His faith in me required deep resources of open-mindedness and imagination, for though I did have some talent in the thinking department, I was nobody’s image of a scholarly apprentice. I was kooky, arrogant and wild, bursting with every kind of inappropriate energy, dizzyingly immature. Thirty years after I effusively inscribed it to him, he showed me that he still had a poetry manuscript titled “the last gasp of the enfant terrible,” illustrated with black-and-white photographs of me peeking through the bars of a canine air carrier. But he always seemed to see beyond who I was to who I could be.
I visited Providence several times since Tom learned of his illness in 2004, having tea with him and his wife Sarah and whichever of my offspring and friends I had in tow, always eager to show off this great person in my life, My Advisor, as I possessively referred to him whenever possible. In 2010, when he published an excellent memoir of his career and his life called A Liberal Education, I showed up to get my signed copy. But by the last time I went through town, reading and writing had slipped from his grasp. They had been replaced by painting, long an interest of his. Now the house was filled with abstract, Marsden Hartley-type creations that had the feeling of jazz.
The last article he published, ruefully and wryly describing his experience of Parkinson’s, is called The Twilight of A Historian. In it, he talks about the pleasure he took in mentoring his last few students, describing them and their projects in detail. My Advisor was their advisor too. In the week since he died, posts on his Facebook page show how many of us there are. It is uncanny to see how each says exactly what I feel.
“I truly loved this man. Mentor in every sense of the word, and dear friend.”
“There aren’t many people you can say changed your life, but I sure feel that way about my dear friend Tom Gleason.”
“His impact on my life as a mentor, a teacher, and a role model will forever be etched into my memory and being.”
“The most influential teacher I have ever known. Dearest prof, thank you for touching my life.”
“He gave me my first cup of good coffee ever (French roast) when I was a mere teen.”
I may have forgotten everything I ever learned about Russian History, but reading these posts, I saw that Gleason’s influence was more profound and lasting than the facts I’ve misplaced about the boyars, the muzhiks, the Second False Dimitri and Michael Bakunin. As he himself put it in that last essay, “it is better to teach your students how to show what they can do than to demonstrate to them what you can do.”
I have a pile of spiral notebooks filled with notes from Tom’s classes, sometimes copied from the board in an imitation of his eccentric, baroque handwriting, which somehow made English look like Cyrillic. But this lesson, never written down, is the one that has stayed with me over my years as a teacher, a parent and as a friend. How to change someone’s life: See clearly who they are and what they can do. Get excited about it. Let them know. Ask them to show you. When they do, get excited about it. Let them know. Then ask them to do it again, better this time, and tell them how.
That is what Tom Gleason could do. He did it better than anyone I have ever met.
University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and many other books. Her Bohemian Rhapsody column appears in the Baltimore Fishbowl on the first Wednesday of every month. Visit marionwinik.com to sign up for a monthly email with links to new essays and book reviews.