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Memories are Made of This: Losing a Job, Finding a Friend and a Career

January 6, 2017

Jerry Gill in 1957

Here is the eighth installment of recollections from D. Bruce Lockerbie.


In 1957, sixty years ago this spring, Frank Gaebelein had hired five new faculty members for the academic year 1957-1958. In alphabetical order, we were Douglas Burton, Jerry Gill, Donald Jones, D. Bruce Lockerbie, and Malvin Tjornholm. As a group, we were as green as grass.  Believe it or not, I was the veteran, the experienced pro, having taught and coached for a year at Wheaton College; the other four were raw rookies. Apart from our youth-in-common (each of us barely old enough to vote!), we were as diverse as the School itself, then opening for its 36th year. We had come from upstate New York, the West Coast, Indiana by way of Texas, Brooklyn by way of Illinois, and Staten Island. Four of us were newly married, the fifth (Don Jones), a bachelor eager to change that status; one had already had a child. Burton, Jones, and Tjornholm remained in abbreviated terms of service; Gill had a special arrangement for a limited two or three-year tenure while attending seminary; only the Lockerbies settled in for the long haul.

Early on, Lory and I connected best with one couple, Jerry and Janet Gill, whom we met before the others had arrived at the School. One night in late August 1957, before we had occupied our assigned apartment in Hegeman Hall, my wife and I were awakened in our temporary quarters in the Infirmary (now the Health Center) by voices and dropped luggage and a baby’s crying. Past midnight, someone else was being moved into the rooms upstairs. The next morning, I met an energetic personality who identified himself as Jerry Gill. With the Stony Brook Assembly’s season ended, he was prowling the deserted campus in search of someone who could ease his confusion about where he was and when business would commence. His story spilled out in his rapid-fire manner: He and his wife Janet had met at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where he had been a multi-sport athlete and a late-blooming scholar. In fact, he had just completed a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Washington, in his hometown of Seattle. Next stop was to be a degree at The Biblical Seminary in New York (now New York Theological Seminary). Needing both a place to live and employment to sustain his family—but with a profound absence of knowledge of East Coast geography—Gill had responded to a notice of a position available at a boy’s boarding school, also in New York. Without checking an atlas, he had applied, and FEG had hired him to teach Bible and coach a sport or two… but about 60 miles east of the Seminary and 90 minutes by train—a fact he and his wife and their infant son had discovered only upon touching down at the airport and schlepping by train to the Stony Brook depot. Arriving long after dark, they had walked up Chapman Parkway to the first signs of life in the windows of Grosvenor House and surprised the Headmaster, who escorted them to the Health Center.

I learned all this narrative with its complicated history in a rush of sentences accompanied by dramatic gesticulations and hearty laughter that took far less time than the paragraph above might suggest. Jerry wasn’t distressed or unnerved in the slightest; he simply wanted to know where they had landed and when the vacant spaces all around him would come alive with students! As I was to observe in several settings over ensuing decades, even more than the intricacies of modern philosophical thought, students and their willingness to learn were Jerry Gill’s professional passions.

As he paused to take a breath, I introduced myself to him and explained where we were in relation to Manhattan and how to get there.  I told him that we were still ten days or more away from the return of athletes for early fall sports and offered to help him get his wife and son settled in the Hopkins Hall second-floor apartment, to which they had been assigned. With the summer conferences ended, Lory and I were preparing our own meals in the tiny kitchen, and so I welcomed him and his family to join us for breakfast. There I learned about his sports experience: State of Washington high school champion in the long jump, basketball captain at Westmont College. I told him about my intentions to continue competing with the New York Athletic Club. We hit it off!

As the other newcomers arrived, the four young wives—Susie Burton, Janet Gill, Lory Lockerbie, and Barbara Tjornholm—became friendly with each other, but Lory and Janet were closest in those early years. Janet was a Southern California girl who didn’t know the rules of the Eastern “fashion police” regarding wearing white shoes after Labor Day and other such apparel mandates. In fact, neither she nor her husband owned a winter coat with which to fend off a freezing day on Long Island. Lory provided them both with coats and Janet with knowledge of a few cultural differences. In turn, Janet—whose son Jeremy was approaching his first birthday—had helpful encouragement to Lory when, as of October 19, our first son was born.

All four young women came under the austere tutelage of FEG’s wife Dorothy Medd Gaebelein, whose instructions in boarding school decorum for faculty wives spanned such topics as prohibitions on toddlers’ wearing pajamas to the Johnston Hall dining room for an evening meal to practice in how to lower the window shades in a faculty apartment bedroom and how to string one’s lingerie and other unmentionable laundry items discreetly on the clothesline behind the sheets and towels to protect “the boys” from temptation’s fantasies. Somewhat more practical was the loving mentoring by other women—veterans at Stony Brook named Eleanor Johnson, Ross Hershey, Dorothie Goldberg, and Esther Marshall—who nurtured them in the ways of sustaining family life in Hopkins or Johnston or Hegeman residence halls.

By the way, it seems notable to me that, over almost 100 years, that year’s group of faculty wives has been the only ones to whom a graduating class (1958) has dedicated its version of the Res Gestae annual yearbook.

The five faculty newbies could be found in frequent informal conversations among ourselves and with our older colleagues, sharing our latest discovery about the mysteries of being a boarding school “master.” Whatever our differences, the one common theme among us was how intolerably busy we were, including at the very moment during which we were making time to talk! For instance, in those years, one man each day was assigned to be “in charge” of each meal’s attendance and routine, plus taking the roll at the daily mid-morning chapel service and the snack (often cookies and juice) that followed on the Johnston Hall patio. During this interval the rest of the faculty gathered for a brief cup of coffee and donut in the Arno C. Gaebelein Memorial Library, where we took advantage of a few minutes’ freedom from “the boys” to kvetch over living in a fish-bowl, accepting the constancy of dorm duties and other supervisory responsibilities, remembering what it had been like (not so many years before) to be a teenage boy, finding time following a day of classes and afternoon sports practice and the evening meal ended to prepare the next day’s lessons, maintaining a more than nodding acquaintance with one’s wife…  and on and on and on. Too much “shop talk” too often and for too little gain.

Jerry Gill was somewhat the exception. Several mornings each week he boarded an early train to Penn Station and the seminary in Manhattan (among his classmates were Pat Robertson, Tom Little, and a tall basketball player from Adelphi University named Karl Soderstrom). Gill was eager to complete his degree as soon as possible and so loaded up on additional courses and always had his major papers composed, typed, and handed in long before they were due. Upon return to Stony Brook, he picked up on his share of duties as teacher, coach, dormitory supervisor, as well as husband-and-father.

During the basketball season, in addition to assisting Jim Fenton in coaching the team, Don Jones—who had played in Indiana—and Jerry Gill cooked up a game between members of the Stony Brook faculty and some seminarians, including Karl Soderstrom (whose main claim to fame was that, in a game at Madison Square Garden, he had held Bevo Francis, the nation’s leading scorer, well below his average). Later that winter, I convinced Jerry to make his own Madison Square Garden appearance when I recruited him to represent the New York AC in the long jump at the National AAU indoor championship meet. He told me later that it was “the thrill of a lifetime!”

As our first year came to an end, I was eager to be sure of summer employment. The Stony Brook Assembly, founded in 1909, had ended its residential conferences after the 1957 season, largely determined by Mariel Ward’s declaration that she and her family would not be vacating their Johnston Hall apartment to make room for conference guests. After almost a half-century of on-site conferees from across the continent and overseas, instead the Assembly program would consist of only one week’s meetings in Carson Auditorium, July 26 through August 1. That change meant no nursing employment for Lory and no conference meals for us in the Johnston Hall dining room, although I was hired to provide song-leading and special music, including a conference choir. But I needed some greater means to provide our daily bread throughout the summer.

Sometime that spring I’d met a near neighbor named Todd Harris, a Princeton graduate whose college friend had been Bill Bonthron, a one-time world-class miler. Harris (whose son Ethan is both a Stony Brook  alumnus, Class of 1971, and former trustee) owned a plastics factory in downtown Stony Brook. During one conversation he asked me about the prizes generally awarded at the meets in which I competed. I described an array of gold/silver/bronze medals lying in their boxes in some dark drawer or brassy trophies topped by wedding-cake statuettes taking up space. He described something quite different: A medal encased in clear plastic to serve as a paperweight or desktop ornament.  He offered to make me a sample, so I provided my most prized award, the bronze NCAA medal from the 1955 cross-country championship race. It sits on my desk as I write.

Noting my delight, Todd Harris proposed that I join his firm for the summer of 1958, as a salesman to track meet and other sporting event directors up-and-down the East coast, showing my NCAA award as a replacement for the Dieges and Clust medals commonly offered. Of course, I accepted. On the Monday following the 1958 Commencement Exercises, I presented myself for work at the plastics factory (now the administration building for the Long Island Museum). Todd Harris flinched upon seeing me, slapped his forehead, and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I neglected to tell you, I sold the company last week.  I can use you for one week of inventory, and I’ll pay you for two weeks.”

Okay, what do we do now?  I spent that day—and the next four—mindlessly collecting and counting plastic bottle caps and other products. But upon returning home that first afternoon, I greeted Lory with the news. Her first reaction echoed my question: “What are we going to do?” I had the perfect answer, just what every young wife is waiting to hear: “I think I’ll use the summer to write.”

The fact that she didn’t immediately pack up her own and our son Don’s belongings and head home to her mother in Brooklyn is its own testament. The next week, having completed my one-week/paid-for-two commitment, I moved a table and chair onto the screened-in porch at our end of Hegeman Hall, set up my Underwood typewriter, and began composing homilies and inspirational articles for Sunday School papers and like-minded Christian magazine publishers. As I set up shop, I looked across the lawns and Chapman Parkway separating Hegeman from Hopkins. There on his front porch sat Jerry Gill, preparing for his own summer of writing!

We called to each other, then met later that morning—and most days thereafter—to encourage each other. Of course, while I was creating sappy stories and preachy illustrations for pious consumption, he was struggling to explicate the philosophy of Wittgenstein or the theory of tacit knowing by Michael Polanyi. In our break-time together, I’d read a passage to him, which he’d critique; then he’d read to me and explain what I could admit to not comprehending. We made quite a pair of selfish husbands, each doing his own thing while our wives worried about putting food on the table.

I did have one backup strategy. We’d started a bank account at the lovely white bank in downtown Stony Brook, and I’d made the acquaintance of an officer named Arnold Hawxhurst. When the two-weeks of plastics payment ran low, I went to the bank and asked for a short-term loan. “How much?  And for how long?” My cash salary was $250 per month, less taxes, and knowing that we’d be back in the School dining room soon after Labor Day, I asked the banker for $750, to be repaid by September 15. He gave me the loan in full.

I wrote faithfully each day, sending my work-product to a wide variety of publishers.  My manuscripts were always accompanied by the requisite stamped, self-addressed envelope to receive the anticipated rejection. I also did some evening tutoring and taught voice lessons and sight reading to an aspiring singer. I put on my summer tuxedo and played the vibraphone at two or three social events, and even preached as the summer substitute for a few Long Island pastors on vacation (honorarium was never more than $10, if and when the church treasurer remembered to offer it).

Jerry Gill and I continued meeting each day to support each other’s efforts.  On the day after Labor Day 1958, I went to the School mail boxes to collect the incoming post. Among the bills and flyers were eight envelopes from publishers, one of which was thick enough to signal a returned and rejected manuscript. But the other seven were slim and tight. I opened the first of these and found a check in payment for my unsolicited text; in the second, another check; in the third, yet another check; and so on through the seven envelopes. The total income that morning exceeded my $750 loan, due two weeks later.

I’d lost a job but found a friend and a career that now extends to hundreds of articles and more than forty books. A few months later, Jerry presented me with an off-print of a scholarly article for a theological journal—his first acceptance—which he had inscribed to me. A dozen years later, his first books, Philosophy Today No. 1 and No. 2, anthologies of contemporary philosophical essays, were published by Macmillan. The dedication of No. 2 reads “To D. Bruce Lockerbie, friend in Christ.”

Jerry H. Gill completed his studies early at New York Theological Seminary and left Stony Brook in 1959.  To replace him, he recommended both Tom Little and Karl Soderstrom, who brought to Stony Brook the inductive method of teaching the Bible—by asking questions based on the text. Jerry went on to earn a Ph. D. at Duke and a productive career as a university professor of philosophy and author of some two dozen books. I’ve visited him at various campuses where he has always been the most beloved teacher. He is now retired in Tucson, Arizona, and I regret that we have not seen each other in recent years. He remains—in memory, if not in person—an inspirational friend.



One Comment leave one →
  1. jerry gill permalink
    October 8, 2017 2:51 PM

    Bruce, you old dog !! Jeremy found your site – how great to read your words ;O) I so well remember our friendship in those years and those later when we were on our way to Oxford – and even later when Jeremy and I visited you folks at the Brook. Most of all, I remember you and I scrambling through Dr. G’s give away books after every faculty meeting. I also remember hearing from Lory about you buying a copy of the Sunday NY Times on your way to the hospital for your heart attack. ;O) Mari, my wife of 35 years, and I are thriving in Tucson – I teach 3 and 1/2 courses each semester at the community college (phil. of rel, Intercultural perspectives, and either NT or OT – still publishing a bit, thanks to your early encouragement. All the best to you and yours. Love, Jerry PS – also I clearly remember your kindness in giving me an overcoat for the winter.


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