Donald Gillin, 1930-2005

Donald GillinMy father, Donald G. Gillin, died a year ago tonight. His death from Alzheimer’s Disease at 75 was tragic for one so intellectually vibrant, but Alzheimer’s is an unforgiving disease. He had taken great care of his body for many years, but he was unable to escape the clutches of an illness that robbed him of his mind.

I’m posting this entry because I recently became aware that news of his death apparently did not disseminate through the standard communications channels. My dad was a terrible record-keeper. He had no Rolodex and whatever contact information he had consisted of phone numbers scrawled on slips of paper that he kept in his wallet. When he died, I had no way to contact the people who might want to know the news. I submitted obituaries to his alma mater and to the leading professional journal in his field of Asian studies, but apparently neither ever published anything. I learned this by contacting a colleague and friend of his recently, who was unaware of my dad’s passing.

I’m posting this in hopes that someone searching for news of my dad will come by this blog entry. Below is the obituary that ran in the local newspaper. Please contact me if you’d like to know more.

SHREWSBURY, MA. – Donald Gillin, Ph. D., a noted China scholar and former head of the Asian Studies program at Vassar College, died on Aug. 28 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 75.

Dr. Gillin taught at Vassar from 1968 until his retirement in 1992. He was previously a faculty member at Duke University. A fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker, he was noted for talents as a lecturer and story-teller. His innovative “Hollywood on Asia” course at Vassar at one point drew enrollment of almost 15% of the Vassar student body. An accompanying slide set on images of China in popular media sold more than 700 copies when produced by The Asia Society.

Dr. Gillin served as a visiting member of the faculty at the Universities of Michigan and North Carolina, Stanford University, San Francisco State College, Arizona State University and Sir George Williams University in Montreal. He delivered scores of papers and lectures at conferences and symposia around the world, including many meetings of the Association for Asian Studies.

His books included Warlord: Yen Hsi-shan in Shansi Province 1911-1949 (Princeton University Press, 1967) and East Asia: A Bibliography for Undergraduate Libraries (BroDard Publishing Company, 1970). Warlord is still in use as a college textbook nearly 40 years after it was published. He co-authored Last Chance in Manchuria (Hoover Press, 1989) and Prescriptions for Saving China: Selected Writings of Sun Yat-sen (Hoover Institution Press, 1994). His monograph, Falsifying China’s History: The Case of Sterling Seagrave’s The Soong Dynasty ( Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 1986) caused a small sensation in Asian studies circles for its empassioned refutation of the bestselling Soong Dynasty.

Dr. Gillin also published dozens of articles in scholarly journals, including The Journal of Asian Studies, South Atlantic Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica, Journal of Modern History, and American Historical Review. Born in San Francisco, Dr. Gillin earned B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University. A recipient of Ford Foundation and Stanford grants, he studied Chinese language in Taiwan and Hong Kong before joining the Duke faculty in 1959. He joined the Vassar faculty in 1968.

Dr. Gillin’s wife, Rose Marie, died in 2000. He leaves two children: Paul Gillin of Westboro, Mass. and Presto Rubel of Brimfield, Mass. He also leaves two grandchildren. A cremation is planned. Donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association. Communications may be sent to Paul Gillin, 4 Thurber St., Framingham, MA 01702.

Addendum, July , 2014

My dad was never very good at playing with others, so his death was ignored by the Journal of Asian Studies and even by Vassar College, where he taught for 25 years. My blog post appears to be the only record of his passing, judging by the many e-mails and comments it has received. I’m glad I could build some small memorial to him, since he was such a brilliant and memorable character. I’ll use this space to jot down some memories from time to time.
My dad was a brilliant but quirky man. In addition to modern Chinese military history, he was an expert on the Civil War and very proficient in the history of both world wars. He spoke Chinese so fluently that he sometimes fooled native Chinese speakers on phone calls.

Donald and Paul Gillin circa 1961

Donald and Paul Gillin circa 1961

He had an unbelievable mind for facts and trivia. As a kid I liked to watch the game show Jeopardy. My dad hated game shows, so whenever he caught me watching he’d scold me for wasting my time with such rubbish. Then he’s start answering the questions, often running the board before leaving in disgust. I used to tell him that if he could get over his aversion to game shows he could have won us $100,000 on Jeopardy.

As brilliant as he was, he struggled to distinguish between right and left until his dying day. He once lost his wallet at the Poughkeepsie train station because he took it out of his pocked to look up his own phone number and left it in the phone booth. We had owned that phone number for five years. When he died I went through his wallet, a grotesque blob of leather stuffed with hundreds of pieces of paper, nearly all of them phone numbers. I found my own number in there at least a dozen times, covering three houses and more than 15 years. His own number was was in there several times as well. My dad couldn’t be bothered with keeping detailed records. His mind contained most of what he needed to get through life.

The tiniest mechanical tasks could send him into a rage. He had absolutely no mechanical skills – couldn’t even operate a screwdriver. It wasn’t for lack of motor skills, though. He played a mean game of tennis, despite having never had a lesson. His tennis form was terrible – he was all wrist and he served with an odd scooping motion. He was surprisingly devastating, though. He played with manic intensity, often staying on the court for two hours in the brutal North Carolina summer heat. Then he might stroll to class. As one former student recently wrote me, “He would come in the early afternoon class fresh from the tennis court, his racket in hist hand, and would tell us about Chinese peasants, or Yen Shi-shan, whose biography he was writing then.”

He was a brilliant lecturer and storyteller, but he hated meetings and largely avoided faculty get-togethers, preferring the company of a few close friends. He was basically a loner who nevertheless thrived in front of  groups. He loved to tell stories but hated small talk.

Late in my dad’s career he figured out a way to combine his love of Hollywood films with his passion for China. Understand that his love of movies was far more than just a pastime. I believe he had seen just about every major motion picture that had come out of Hollywood between 1945 and 1960, and he filed them away in his prodigious memory. As a teenager, I used to play a game with him by picking movie titles at random from TV Guide. He would respond with the year the film was made, the names of the lead actors, the director and a summary of the plot. As I recall, his accuracy rate was between 80% and 90%. It was awesome.

In the late 1970s he hatched the idea of an undergraduate course called “Hollywood on Asia.” Each class consisted of a full-length popular film – usually a B&W Classic like “The Mash of Fu Manchu,” followed by a lecture. The course became a modest sensation at Vassar, where it enrolled as many as 250 students one semester. That’s 15% of the student population. Many students no doubt thought it would be a gut course, but my dad took the topic seriously and he graded hard. I don’t remember specifics, but he said he gave our a lot of Cs and Ds on the term paper.

The course was controversial. While the students loved it, some of the faculty criticized my dad for dumbing down scholarship. He thought they were jealous, and they probably were. It didn’t help that he took things a bit too far with his next venture, which was a slide presentation on Chinese sexual imagery in popular culture. The images he used weren’t obscene, but some of them were pretty racy, and the reaction from his colleagues was largely negative. That presentation was probably one of the main reasons the Vassar administration forced him into early retirement at age 63. That coincided with the beginning of my mother’s long downward spiral from diabetes and Lupus, which ended in her death in May, 2000. My dad’s Alzheimer’s symptoms became apparent about a year later.

13 thoughts on “Donald Gillin, 1930-2005

  1. Paul,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences. As my children grow older, I was reading about your discovery process and ticking off a list of what I and my mom and my siblings should prepare for our children.

    My first experience with Alzheimer’s was going to a job interview at Grumman’s Calverton facility (way out on Long Island). Two of my father’s other sisters lived separately in Calverton and I was determined to stop by and say hello. After visiting with one Aunt and my Uncle, I stated my intentions about visiting my father’s other sister. They warned me off. I don’t think it was called Alzheimer’s in those days, but I was told she wouldn’t know I’m there, or she would call me different people’s names, etc. Undaunted, I made the visit.

    As my father was the youngest of eight children born to a pair of Irish immigrants (*and I was fifth of eight as well), my Aunt was well over ten years older than my dad. My father rarely spoke of about ancestry, except an occasional reference or visit to a property or building owned by my grandmother in Brooklyn or New Jersey.

    I, and my Aunt, had the best four hours during that visit. Occasionally, I was called “Jack” (after my father), my name, and those of distant relatives or long gone neighbors I never knew. Most of all, my Aunt shared story after story of how her older sisters would have her enter the house first at night (to face their strict disciplinarian mother’s wrath), and other stories from times long gone. It was the first time I heard anything about my grandfather who died when my father was five years old, and also the first time I ‘met’ the person that was my grandmother through my Aunt’s memories who died when my father was about sixteen. I had a new sense of awareness of this sister, her sisters and brothers who shared being the surrogate parents for my father growing up.

    I treasure that memory for ever and whenever questioned about how I could have stood the lack of recognition, I just smile and remember my Aunt.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Larry Timmins

  2. That’s a wonderful story. My father was a great story-teller, so I was treated to many anecdotes of his childhood and the people he grew up with. Unfortunately, I never bothered to sit down with him and fill in the details on names and dates while he still had the capacity to remember those things. By the time I realized I was missing that information, it was too late.

    I’ve talked to some podcast enthusiasts recently who are using that medium to preserve family histories. I think oral histories are the easiest and most genuine memoirs, so I hope more people will take advantage of podcasts in the future to preserve history in this way.

    My advice to anyone who’s confronting the reality of a dying parent is to make an effort to find the names and contact information of people who are important to that person, because you will need to contact them at some point. It’s natural to put aside that task because you’re too busy attending to the urgent medical matters at hand. But when the person is gone, you’ll be sorry you didn’t collect that information.

  3. As someone who has read and learnt a great deal from Donald Gillin’s scholarship on Chinese history, I am really sad to hear of his passing. Thank you so much for posting the obituary.

  4. Brian Brown sent these nice words in an e-mail and agreed to let me post them:

    Please accept my condolences for the passing of your father. I was not aware of it.

    I just sent your blog off to a couple of friends. They now work in Washington, in media and politics. We all were devoted followers of Prof. Gillin. I took nearly all his classes.

    He was an excellent professor. He’d stand in front of the class and speak for one hour, mostly without notes. He’d recount anecdotes of travel to the region interlaced with history. It made learning easy. To this day, I carry knowledge about China and understand the world better because of him. He was a decent man with an excellent sense of humor.

    He also had a tremendous sense of honor. I remember with fondness how he confessed the guilt he felt for being pro-communist for a small part of his life. He had no reason to feel guilt, but it bothered him that he did for a short time support an ideology that imprisoned and killed many — including a relative, in another time and place. I very much appreciated that, especially when so many were so callous, dismissing their misguided beliefs as resulting from “good intentions.” Prof. Gillin would have none of it.

    His views did get him into hot water at times. And I thought this was absurd. He was one of the few voices on campus that differed from the orthodoxy. Yet, they — who demanded diversity — were often against him for offering a different perspective. The duplicity was thick and your father’s ability to navigate it only increased my esteem.

    He had a real impact on my life and for that I am grateful. I wish I could have communicated that more directly to him. Thank you for your efforts and, again, please accept my condolences.

    Best,
    Brian Brown

  5. Former student Brian Brown contributed these memories:

    He was an excellent professor. He’d stand in front of the class and speak for one hour, mostly without notes. He’d recount anecdotes of travel to the region interlaced with history. It made learning easy. To this day, I carry knowledge about China and understand the world better because of him. He was a decent man with an excellent sense of humor.

    He also had a tremendous sense of honor. I remember with fondness how he confessed the guilt he felt for being pro-communist for a small part of his life. He had no reason to feel guilt, but it bothered him that he did for a short time support an ideology that imprisoned and killed many — including a relative, in another time and place. I very much appreciated that, especially when so many were so callous, dismissing their misguided beliefs as resulting from “good intentions.” Prof. Gillin would have none of it.

    His views did get him into hot water at times. And I thought this was absurd. He was one of the few voices on campus that differed from the orthodoxy. Yet, they — who demanded diversity — were often against him for offering a different perspective. The duplicity was thick and your father’s ability to navigate it only increased my esteem.

    He had a real impact on my life and for that I am grateful. I wish I could have communicated that more directly to him. Thank you for your efforts and, again, please accept my condolences.

    Best,
    Brian Brown

  6. I knew your father well. I went to Vassar from 1986 to 1990 and had the great privilege of taking at least two of his courses. He was one of my favorite professors, and a friend.

    Professor Gillin had an obvious passion for Chinese history (and, of course, for film). He also had a great sense of humor. To the small band of conservatives at Vassar, he was something of a hero. I remember him saying something positive about Ronald Reagan during one class. He then stopped, looked out the window to the Main building that housed the school administration, and said something like, “There! I said it! Ronald Reagan was not a bad President. Shoot me.” In fact, you would have been hard-pressed to find any other professor at Vassar who thought of Reagan as anything but a dangerous extremist.

    I recall a Vassar administrator pointing to Professor Gillin as proof of political diversity on the Vassar faculty. Your father found that quite amusing, pointing out that when they hired him he was a Maoist! I believe he paid a price in the academic world for daring to be an independent thinker, but it made him an especially engaging professor. I am saddened, but not surprised, that Vassar College did not publish his obituary. The college never truly appreciated what a treasure he was.

    On occassion I would meet Professor Gillin for Irish coffee at a pub near campus. I relished those conversations, which mostly centered on current developments in China and Chinese history, especially Shanghai in the 1920s. His knowledge of Sun Yat-sen’s China was unsurpassed. He was also a great guy. I miss him.

    – Jonathan Karl, Vassar ’90

  7. Paul, I too was lucky enough to take a course with you rfather at Vassar in 1982. His remarkable lecture skill was matched by his warm sense of humor. And he was forgiving: i wrote a paper on Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke and the revolution which i can only believe he found funny. It wasnt very good but it is one of the few papers i kept from long ago. He was a great character and i am my classmates remember him fondly.

  8. Paul, I too was lucky enough to take a course with you rfather at Vassar in 1982. His remarkable lecture skill was matched by his warm sense of humor. And he was forgiving: i wrote a paper on Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke and the revolution which i can only believe he found funny. It wasnt very good but it is one of the few papers i kept from long ago. He was a great character and i am my classmates remember him fondly.

  9. Doonesbury was my dad’s favorite comic strip. You were either very perceptive or you got lucky!

  10. I took several classes from Don Gillin at Duke when he was a very young professor. He was unquestionably the most influential professor I had although he was only in his second year as a professor. I was so influenced that I wrote my senior paper on the Marshall Mission in China after World War II. My wife and I moved to Asia after graduating and much of my career since then, as an attorney focusing on International Business Law, has involved Asia, particulary Japan and China. My wife also took the class from Gillin in Chinese history and went on to study Japanese language and history in graduate school. We sometime wonder what our lives would have been like if we had not met your dad.

    With condolences and best wishes,

    Chuck Routh

  11. Thanks, Chuck and Susan. That’s a wonderful tribute. I know my dad would have appreciated it more than any of the professional accolades he received.

  12. Paul, I was saddened to read of the death of your father, and by the fact that Vassar seem to have ignored it. I was a young Englishman on a year’s scholarship to Vassar in 1977/78, and took your father’s courses with great delight. He was a rebel who clearly didn’t see eye to eye with the authorities, a very gifted lecturer and an impassioned spokesman for his subject. I still remember his Hollywood and Asia course 30 years later. He was academically rigorous as well, unlike many of his colleagues, but he inspired me to work harder (I got As in all his classes!). Later in life, I visited China, and even lived in Asia for some years: a lot of my interest was as a result of your father. I remember his passion for his subject, his desire to communicate. Above all, I remember that he was friendly and kind to a young student almost 4000 miles from home. I feel lucky to have known him. My condolences.
    Tom Callaghan

  13. Tom: My dad would have been so gratified to hear that he had touched someone in the way you describe. He was passionate about China and if even a small amount of that passion rubbed off on the people he touched, he would have said that made all his worth worthwhile. Thanks for commenting.

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