Our David

By David Haberly

I find it very hard to write something coherent about David Gies.  I’ve known and admired David for almost forty years, and he has been so much a part of my life and career over the decades that it’s difficult to try and step back.  What I do know for sure is that—at least in my long experience—David is a truly unique one-off, as an academic and as a person.

First, David is the only successful academic I have ever encountered who is fully, openly and unabashedly extroverted.  He actually enjoys the company of other people, of all sorts of other people, from small children to insecure first-year advisees to the gilded nabobs aboard The World, and he never tires of finding out all about them and their interests. One of the great ironies of David’s life is that he retains a laudably childlike excitement about meeting famous people, when in fact at least some of those worthies turn out to be utterly unworthy of the admiration of someone as smart and distinguished and decent as David.

The pleasure that interacting with others gives David, I think, helps explain both why he has been such a gifted and successful administrator, and also why he has consistently agreed to take on all sorts of complex and demanding administrative jobs. Being a Chair or a Dean is one thing, but how many other academics would willingly agree to run a homowners’ association?  David is also, I believe, uniquely energetic, enthusiastic, and open to new ideas and experiences.  The first time I ever met David he was talking with intense excitement about his dream of learning to fly a plane; I don’t think he ever learned, though he eventually did—equally enthusiastically—jump out of a plane.  I do remember his mother telling me that toddler David’s constant energy, curiosity, and excitement meant that the only way she could survive and get an occasional break was to tie him to a tree in their back yard.

David is also unique in that he is simultaneously devoted to and comfortable with the two very different intellectual and literary movements in which he has specialized for most of his career.  He is simultaneously enlightened and romantic in all the best senses of the terms.  He is effortlessly able to think logically and rationally about all kinds of issues, but never in isolation from their human, emotional context.  I’ve run just about every important academic or personal decision I’ve made in the last few decades past David, and his logical, rational and always sensitive advice has never once let me down.  I would bet large sums of money that I am far from the only person whom David has helped in this way.  I’m tremendously grateful for David’s constant help and guidance.  I am also grateful to Janna:  for her kindness to and tolerance of all of us; for making David so happy and giving him the chance to be a grandfather; and for the personal ties to Charlottesville that, I believe, helped keep David here among us when it seemed that half the universities in the country were trying to steal him.

Above all, David is unique in that he is truly an exceptionally kind and decent person.  I have never once, in all these years, known David Gies to be cruel or petty or hurtful.  He has always done good deeds without thought of recompense, including taking homeless academics under his roof.  A number of years ago, to give but one example, David did me a small but tremendously meaningful favor.  He did not expect or ask for my gratitude, and in fact never told me what he had done; I found out some time later, almost by chance.

David’s kindness and goodness, in my view, are summed up in a small but significant moment from this past fall. It was a Monday, at the department’s weekly tertulia in the Garden Room.  Very few of us had shown up, as I recall:   David, me, Ricardo Padrón, and a young Hispanic woman, an academic who was going to give a talk that afternoon.  I never caught her name or where she was from (ah, the joys of senescence).  She seemed nervous and a bit unhappy, and it crossed my mind that she might not feel prepared for her lecture.  After a good deal of talk about maps and navigation and European expansion, David—with his natural interest in everyone he meets—began asking her about herself.  Suddenly almost tearful, she mentioned that she had quite recently been widowed.  Without prompting, David began to speak very gently to her, almost in a whisper, revealing that his first wife had died, talking about how painful the experience had been, how long it took to recover, and how happy he was to have eventually found love again. She was literally transformed by his kind words, and it was clear to me that this brief interaction was something she would remember for the rest of her life.  Not only did David instinctively know just what to say and how to say it, but he bothered to make this effort with someone he had never met before and whom he would almost certainly never see again. That’s our David, and God knows how much all of us will miss him!


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