Exclamation Marks: A Biographical Sketch of David T. Gies

By Jeff Bersett

David T. Gies. Retirement. There can certainly be no more inappropriate-seeming combination of name and noun than this, especially for those who know David. In none of its meanings does the word retirement or any of its variants apply easily to him. A selection of words and phrases, quoted directly from people who know him well, bear out the incongruity. Adjectives: “rigorous,” “relentlessly encouraging,” “mighty,” “knighted.” Nouns: “fun-loving spirit,” “a man of travel,” “one helluva sailor.” Entire dependent clauses: “your never-ending happy and positive spirit that made the rest of us look and feel like boring dips and dolts,” “[walking] on sunshine.” And this: “Dashing, Amusing, Vivid, Inspiring, Dignified, Teacher, Guru, Insightful, Ebullient, SPAIN!”

One thing about David Gies that should be noted from the outset: exclamation marks are necessary.

David is, in fact, retiring, but none of us believes that this will alter the way in which he lives his life. He will no longer stand in front of a classroom (though he probably will), he will no longer serve on committees or task forces or senates or other such things (though he probably will), he will no long be under any obligation to enlighten us with typically (for him) incisive and yet entertaining analysis of Spanish culture and literature (though he almost certainly will, we hope). He has earned the right to put another, perhaps more definitive, exclamation mark on a career that few could match, but we expect there to be more !!!!! to come.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, David did not even take a Spanish class until fate made it necessary. His first experience with what would become the subject matter of his professional life (and many aspects of his nonprofessional life as well) serves as a microcosm of the years that would follow. Based on his already impressive merits, teenage David was awarded a scholarship to travel to Perú. To reiterate: he had never had a single Spanish class. As with all things that he has done since, David made the most of the journey that began with his very first plane flight.

As an undergraduate at Penn State he somewhat unenthusiastically declared a Spanish major (this is true—there are on occasion things about which David has not been enthusiastic), and as part of his program traveled to study for six months at the Universidad de Salamanca. At this point we witness the birth of the David Gies who has existed ever since, the one with the insatiable intellectual curiosity and the need to travel and the exclamation marks. In his own words:

Classes at the university were good, yet the real pull was the train system, which took me away every weekend (and, I confess, on numerous days in which I should have been in class) to places I had heard of vaguely and to other places I couldn’t even yet pronounce. Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Segovia, Carrión, Toledo, Medina Azahara, Santiago de Compostela, Santander—these cities became for me a vast outdoor museum, the locations where my real cultural education took place.

On these train rides, David would take with him books that he had purchased at the Librería Cervantes in Salamanca. He fell hopelessly and forever in love with Spain, in spite of the fact that the country suffered under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Spain was not his only love. During his last year at Penn State, David married Mary Jane Kehoe (she was known to most as Mary Jo). They had met early in their time at the university, but had not begun to date each other in any serious way until their senior year. They traveled together in Europe during the summer after David studied in Spain, and David fell in love with the woman whom he has described as “brilliant and sophisticated… whose patience with a naïve boy from Pittsburgh only later became clear to me.”

Following graduation from Penn State, David continued his study of Spanish at the University of Pittsburgh. He would have left the school after a only a year to transfer to Columbia University (where he had been accepted for graduate study not once, but twice) were it not for one of the many happy accidents that have peppered his life. “The wrong thing never happens,” as he has said to all of us. In this case, the right thing that happened was the arrival of Javier Herrero to Pittsburgh as a professor in the program. One course with Mr. Herrero, and David decided that he had better stick around. Following Mr. Herrero to the program would be other luminaries, such as A.A. Parker and R.O. Jones. David did not go to New York, and he took note of this model of how to build a department. It would serve him well before long.

David finished his doctoral thesis, on Agustín Durán, while occupying his first professional position at St. Bonaventure University. The research work that he did for the project, at Mr. Herrero’s suggestion, forged another pattern that David would follow repeatedly during the following decades: an extended stay at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, weeks of intensive work in libraries and archives, balanced with avid exploration of places and food and drink and culture. David quickly made his name, and earned the respect of his fellow academics, as well the respect of many who had nothing to do with the scholarly life. At conferences around the world and while working in Madrid, he met all the important figures in Hispanism at the time, and soon became one of those figures himself.

In 1979, David was invited by Javier Herrero to join him in the project of rebuilding a moribund program, at the University of Virginia. David said yes. In short order, they convinced others to be a part of the department: Juan Cano Ballesta, Donald Shaw, Alison Weber, Fernando Operé, and Joel Rini in Spanish, Tibor Wlassics and Deborah Parker in Italian, as well as a number of other distinguished and inspiring teachers and scholars who formed one of the most impressive academic units in the United States. Following Mr. Herrero’s lead, they created an atmosphere of mutual support and team effort. David has continued to reinforce this tradition throughout his time at Virginia: the department developed a program that to this day trains it students to be outstanding teachers and scholars and, perhaps more importantly, to be good colleagues.

One of the key characteristics of the department that David fostered with his colleagues was the use of visiting scholars and authors to complement the academic work already being done on campus. During the period since David’s arrival on campus, he and his colleagues in the department have hosted Carmen Martín Gaite, Isabel Allende, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Rosa Montero, Mempo Giardinelli, and many others.

During his early years at Virginia, David conducted the research that would result in two of his most important contributions to the field: Theatre and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Spain: Juan de Grimaldi as Impresario and Government Agent (1988), and The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain (1994). These books, just two of the four (or five, depending on how one counts them) that David has written, represent in microcosm the scope of David’s work, from focus on individual but key players in the world of theater or characteristics of specific cultural moments, to the big-picture significance of the wider view. Later, he would edit three more volumes that have proven to be essential as well: The Cambridge Companion to Modern Spanish Culture (1999), The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature (2004), and The Cambridge History of Theatre in Spain (2012). These are monumental works that have broadened our understanding of Spain as a whole, thanks in large part to David’s stewardship in the editorial process.

There is of course peerless quality in everything that David has done in terms of his scholarly work, but the sheer quantity of what he has done is breathtaking. In addition to the above-mentioned books, he has edited (as of this writing) nine others, he has published over 100 articles, made other written contributions to dozens of publications, written more than 130 book reviews (apart from the nearly 200 short reviews that he has published in the Virginia Quarterly Review), he has given lectures and presentations around the world regularly for almost fifty years, without pause. He has served on editorial boards for numerous publishers and scholarly journals and, since 1993, he has edited and published Dieciocho, which has served as a model for the entire academic community dedicated to Hispanic Studies.

David has also taken pains to share what he has learned beyond the strictly academic community. Working with the University of Virginia Center for the Liberal Arts (which he helped to establish), and, frequently, the National Endowment for the Humanities, David has created programs that have educated teachers from around the country on matters related to Hispanic culture. On two occasions he took groups of high school teachers to Spain (“Spain Today and Toward the Year 2000,” in 1992 and 1994), creating curricula that helped program participants to see beyond the long-ingrained stereotypes that cloud our perceptions of the country and its people.
In the last twenty years or so, the quality of this sort of work has changed for David. One cause for this development has been his involvement in the Semester at Sea program. When the University of Virginia became the official academic home of the program beginning in 2006, David was given, or rather had earned, the opportunity to become deeply involved in its educational mission. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect union of educator and educational model: David Gies, traveling the world while educating students and developing productive relationships with his colleagues. He served twice as the program’s academic dean (once on a voyage down the west coast of Latin America, and then for a trip that circled the globe), and he has directly affected the lives of literally hundreds of students and faculty members. Just as the train had served David during his time studying in Salamanca, the boat became the vehicle for students from all over the world to have their own museums al aire libre, their own real-world education.

Those who know David recognize fully, though, that behind all this work lies the only thing that matters more to him: his family. The people in his life have formed an inextricable part of everything that he does. Thus David was shattered when his wife Mary Jo passed away unexpectedly in early 1990. David has said that following her death, “it all felt somewhat meaningless to me.” As David tends to do, he made the most of the situation, and went back to work, expecting to live out his days on his own. However, in November 1993, in the offices of the Virginia Quarterly Review, he ran into a woman he knew from the school where Mary Jo had taught. Janna Olson was the new Managing Editor of the journal, and David fell madly in love with her. She had two children, Kirk and Krista, who welcomed David into their lives. David and Janna were married a year later in the University Chapel, mere feet from the offices of the VQR. Their family has grown in decades since: Kirk and Krista have both married and had children of their own. David and Janna, when not in Charlottesville or Spain or somewhere else in the world, can frequently be found visiting their children and grandchildren. David relishes his role as “Lito” (abuelito), as anyone will attest who has heard him talk about the kids, or who has seen his or Janna’s Facebook pages. The photos there depict a man whose love of and joy for his family are boundless.


For his many efforts and achievements, far too many to continue to list here, David has received numerous prestigious awards and other forms of recognition. For example, in 2000 he was honored with the Thomas Jefferson Award, the highest honor granted at the University of Virginia. He found it difficult to believe that this was actually happening. He reports that when he heard his name announced he did not at first recognize it as his, that he suffered from some form of auditory dissonance, and that when he did understand that the name announced did belong to him his only thought was, “But they only give this award to people whose names are on buildings!” This occurred barely halfway through his tenure at the University, and the award was given to him at a time when many of his most impressive accomplishments were still in the future. In 2007, David learned that King Juan Carlos I of Spain would be inducting him into the Order of Isabel la Católica, for his service in the dissemination of Spanish culture. David Gies was officially a knight (!). Finally, in 2013 he was elected to a three-year term as President of the Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas, after having served as the organization’s Treasurer from 2001 to 2007 and its Vice President from 2007 to 2013. David was President of the very organization whose triennial conference had served as the site of one of his earliest triumphs: in Bordeaux, France, in 1974, having been encouraged to do so by Javier Herrero, David gave a talk on Agustín Durán.


David Gies is retiring. Again, his life will change little beyond its surface contours. He will continue to absorb and evaluate and educate us about Spanish culture. He will continue to support his friends and colleagues and former students, as he has always done. He will continue to travel the world and eat delicious food and drink the best wine. He will continue to do all of this with the same unmatched enthusiasm that has marked nearly everything that he has done throughout his life. He will continue to be David Gies. Who will continue to be anything but retired.

David and Janna, New York City, January 2018