David and I. An (Academic) Affair to Remember

by Javier Herrero

I arrived to the United States in 1966, to Duke University. In 1967 I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Virginia. I was exstatic facing the dazzling beauty created in the lovely fields of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson. Here was the truly American spirit: the Greek temples and Roman Forum translated by an Enlightenment’s mind into a new architectural marvels. They represented, in their new incarnation, the ideals of Democracy and Republic, and the rejection of, for the 18th century American revolutionaries, decrepit values of monarchical and aristocratic authority. Briefly, I fell in love with UVA.

It would come as no surprise, then, that I was delighted when, in 1971, I was offered the position of Chairman of the Department of the Spanish Italian and Portuguese of the University of Virginia. I immediately wrote accepting the professorship but not the chairmanship: the structure of European universities, in whose bosom I had been educated and taught for years, was totally different from the American one, and I did not believe that I could successfully direct a department without having the foggiest idea of how it worked. However the university insisted that if I accepted it had to be as chairman and I declined. However, God, in His supreme wisdom, had decided that I had to be chairman of UVA and, what can humans do in the face of such a supreme authority? In 1979 I was offered again the same position, and again as chairmanship. I knew by experience that I could not negotiate, it was aut chairman aut nihil! What to do?

In the late 60s and early 70s I had had the most remarkable student in my, by then, about twenty years in Academia. David Gies is the only student of whom I can say that he wrote his dissertation incognito. He had taken a course in which I studied the conflict, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, between the predominant conservative thought and the new liberal one. Among the authors that we discussed there vaguely appeared an interesting figure of whom very little was known (Agustin Durán) but whose influence made him worthy of scholarly attention. David asked me if I thought that he could be the subject of his dissertation; I was delighted that he had chosen a subject that will enlighten some aspect aspects of one of most fascinating, but at the time mostly ignored, periods of modern Spanish literary history: the origins of Spanish romanticism. David managed to get a grant, went to Spain to conduct his research, and disappeared of my sight.

I remember perfectly well the afternoon we met again, in my home in Yorkshire Drive, in Pittsburgh. He had written to me that he had come back to USA and that he should like to visit me to chat about his dissertation. Obviously this was a rather unusual situation: in my experience, when a student is doing research and progressing in his/her work, s/he periodically consults you, often sending some material that you revise and comment. Such a prolonged silence did not bode well; I now would have to study an enormous amount of material that, in case that it was not acceptable, would imply a disastrous waste of David’s time (and mine). But my alarm was in vain; what David had brought to me was his completed dissertation: he was presenting to me a book ready for publication. I was truly astonished; such efficiency was remarkable. The exam was a pure formality and soon the book was published, the first of the many that provided the foundation for his remarkable career. Very soon and very young, David was a tenured Associated Professor at Saint Bonaventure University in New York state.

Turning now back to my offer of chairmanship. I was decided to accept it but I was equally convinced that I could not handle the job. I needed somebody that was very familiar with the structure of American universities (all those 100; 201; 311; etc.) that was a mystery to me. Of David competence and of his loyalty I was certain; both essential since I intended to give to him complete authority in the organization of our program. I was fortunate that the University was ready to give me all I needed to implement what was its main aim: to place the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese to the level of excellence occupied by the other departments of language and literature in our institution. And these levels were very high indeed: all were between the five best in the country (English number three). I told the Dean, “I shall be ashamed if I didn’t do it”, and that seems to have been the right answer because he offered to help me in any possible way. Free from any shyness I asked for a new line that will allow us to bring, as visiting professors the top international scholars and writers, and for at least one endowed chair (we later got two). I also wanted to establish in UVA the program of MA and PhD that under the guidance of Alexander Parker, arguably the most distinguished Hispanist of his day, we had created in the University of Pittsburgh. Not an easy task to implement.

I, then, knew what I wanted, but had neither the know how to pass it from the ideal to the practical world, nor the energy to embark in such enterprise. But I knew that David Gies did. He knew Spanish as a native; he had won all kind of awards as a High School and as a College student, among them grants to attend programs in Latin-American countries and in Spain. Having been a graduate student in Pittsburgh he was familiar with our program and, above all, in the handling of his dissertation he had shown that he had the combination of total dedication and untiring stamina that made of him in later years one of the greatest scholars of his generation. On top of that all, he is a first class administrator. I had his name already in mind when I met the Dean; I suggested it to him insisting that I considered his appointment essential for the success of our project and, after some inevitable formalities (visit to the department, meetings with the faculty etc.) David was Assistant Chairman of the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese of the University of Virginia. He was thirty four years old.

Not only was the department was in crisis, but in a truly existential one, since two of the three full professors of the department had retired and the debilitation produced by such a state of disarray was obviously dangerous for its scholarly health. There did not seem to be a program: each professor told the secretary what they wanted to teach and in this way the series of courses of the semester were established. But one of the greatest and more disconcerted surprises took place went we discovered that not only we did not have a program, but we did not have students. I am referring of course to graduate students, since there are always enough undergraduates in the Spanish language. Our discovery took place in a rather bewildering way. I decided to teach my first seminar on “Don Quijote”, assuming than such an important text would attract a majority of the graduate students and would give me a chance to know them. I was shocked when I found out that only two had registered. I immediately, in a state of panic, consulted with David who, with his usual competence, came back with a puzzling but comforting answer: “Congratulations, Javier. Your course offering has been extremely successful. All our graduate students have signed for it!” And proceeded to present to me a list of the lecturers who taught our language courses, the majority, as was the case at the time, the wives of professors of different departments who knew one of our languages. So, we had just two graduate students! (By the way I leave out of these comments the section of Portuguese that was a model of efficiency and scholarly solidity).

We had, then, four major problems: we did not have a program; we did not have students; we had to replace retired senior faculty; we were very low in the national ranking. But we had a very powerful weapon: the promise of the Dean of giving us full support. However, to obtain it we had to present to him carefully thought plans. The creation of a program presented no problem; I have mentioned the one we established in Pittsburgh under the guidance of Professor Alexander Parker and with which David was familiar. Our goal was to provide to the students in search if an M.A. a knowledge of the most important texts of the Spanish literature starting from the Middle Ages to the, then relatively recent, Civil War and Franco years. With that foundation it would be easy for the student pursuing the Ph.D. to narrow the field of his interest to a subject of whose background s/he had a familiarity. We establish this program in UVA in 1979; it has lasted until today, and numerous students have written to us gratefully expressing how useful it was as a preparation to start immediately the new career of Assistant Professor without undue anxieties.

Two major problems remained to be solved if we wanted fulfill the Dean’s vision of a Department with national prestige. These problems were really two sides of the same one: if we attracted internationally known professors graduate students of quality would follow. Since we had the promise of the Dean, and with it the funds, the task was relatively easy. I had originally intended to bring, with the rank of ‘Visiting Professor’, the greatest European scholars, so that our students would be exposed to a different tradition of teaching and learning. David, though, as usual, came with a most interesting idea; why not combine the critics with the writers, artists, and bring to the students simultaneously the creator and the product. I enthusiastically agreed. So we immediately proceeded to produce two lists: one of future chaired professors as permanent members of the department, the only way of giving to it the prestige we claimed, and other of possible visiting novelists and poets who will contribute to this success with the glamour that art brings with itself and of which the gravitas of research is deprived. David laboriously collected all the necessary information while I dedicated myself to the more attractive, self-aggrandizing task of inviting such luminaries as Sir Peter Russel, Oxford Professor of Medieval Literature, Professor Jean Cannavaggio, Director of the Center of French Culture in Madrid, Professor Colin Smith, of Cambridge, etc., to visit us (in the Spring Semester) in successive years. Equally rewarding, and, given the nature of their activities, even more lively, was the visit of writers of the standing of Carmen Martin Gaite, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Rosa Montero, Guillermo Carnero, Isabel Allende, Mempo Giardinelli, and other luminaries that delighted our students, entertained us with their company, and honored us with their friendship.

With regard the staff itself, whose quality, obviously would be the foundation of any progress in future ranking, we progressively appointed such distinguished scholars as Juan Cano for the Spanish-Peninsular section, Donald Shaw as our Latin-American specialist, and Tibor Wlassics in Italian (David covering 18th and 19th centuries, and I the Golden Age). In Bristol, England, attending a lecture on Latin American literature, I found out that a modest fellow that had his office three doors beyond mine, David Haberly, was an internationally recognized authority in Brazilian studies. In successive years we completed our faculty recruiting promising young scholars such as Alison Weber, Fernando Operé, Gustavo Pellón, Ricardo Padrón and Joel Rini, (followed in later years by established scholars of the standing of Mané Lagos, Randolph Pope, Michael Gerli, and Andrew Anderson). The joint contribution of this group has brought UVA to share with Yale University the number one among the Spanish departments in the country. The wish of the Dean who appointed me had been achieved. Another Dean told me when I, retiring, went to say “Good bye!”: “Javier, we invited you to play and you broke the bank!” I did not do it alone.

But this part of recruiting a faculty, although it needed a lot of search and paper work, was relatively easy. What I should call the ‘heroic period’ of our fight towards excellence was the search for graduate students. How to persuade young graduates of first class universities to apply to a program that was in a state of development? Here I must acknowledge that we owe the greater part of our success to the strategic genius of David. The first thing that we must do – he advised me – is to write a brochure taking advantage of the many attractive features of Thomas Jefferson’s University: its tradition of being part of cultural development that took place with the birth of the Republic, related historically and socially with what has been called the dynasty of Virginian presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, several of them close friends and neighbors; its proximity to Williamsburg, which had been the colonial capital of Virginia and the earliest center to agitate for independence in the South; all of this had made of UVA, in the past, the most sought-after educational center in the South of the United States. And we should not discard its aesthetic beauty that won for UVA in 1976, in a celebration of the centenary of the Revolution that took place with the attendance of the Queen of England (and the still in power Shah of Iran), the prize for the greatest architectural achievement in America. This historical and Jeffersonian heritage had made of it the most distinguish and elegant center of learning, with a certain snobbish appeal. To top it all, David found that Thomas Jefferson had recommended the study of Spanish: this quotation became prominent part of the brochure. With all this, basically historical and partly baloney, David produced a fabulous piece of propaganda.

Already we had the seductive brochure but, what to do with it? I called this part of our recruiting efforts ‘heroic’; we could call it also, using terms of the great Steve Martin, the ‘wild and crazy’ period. Again I must give David the credit for the brilliant, if up to a point arduous, strategy directed to the search and capture the graduate students who would receive, and later dispend, the excellent education that our renewed department would impact. Our motto was, ‘We must spare no effort, be ready to do any sacrifice, to run any risk, in the cause of recruiting the best master and doctoral candidates!’ And how to do this? We must personally distribute the brochures. Where? Anywhere! By ‘anywhere’ it was understood that we shall attend all conferences where members of the profession met regularly: MLA, of course, what meant the different cities where they took place; the North Atlantic MLA, the South Atlantic MLA, The Kentucky Conference of Foreign Languages, and any other less periodical one that was announced in the relative proximity of Virginia. Of these meetings the most productive one was the South Atlantic MLA, of whose executive committee we were members, which took place every spring in Atlanta, and whose location was usually one of the lovely hotels situated in Peachtree Avenue. David and I selected in every occasion the rooms where topics were discussed that could attract an audience likely to be interested in what we offered, and we placed our brochures on the chairs. After the meeting we would go back to see how many fishes had bitten the bait, which we could discern by seeing the number of brochures left untouched. Of course this tiresome activity was complemented with personal contacts and enthusiastic explanation of the excellence of the renewed department that was been created in UVA.

Was this strategy too onerous? I think that David would agree with me that this was one of the most pleasant tasks that we have completed in the long years of our profession. As we all know, to attend conferences is not an exclusively scholarly activity: you have to lunch here, dine there, attend cultural activities, meet and chat with numerous friends, and in fact live a temporary cosmopolitan existence of a human and cultural quality that cannot be achieved in the usual departmental routine. A faculty meeting or an advising session are not glamorous; dining in a superb restaurant in Peachtree, with old friends, can be. And David made sure that this was the case. I said earlier that his abilities are varied, and among them, in an extreme case, is his talent as an organizer. Before we had left Charlottesville, David knew the ratings of the best restaurants in Atlanta (or in San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Madrid … and so many other great cities where our scholarly pursuits have taken us during the years), their menus and their prices. In a certain way, we have, in the successive events of so many travels, experienced the fascinating progress of American sophistication in the last decades of the twentieth century. For example, in the early 1980s it was impossible to have an expresso in the best restaurants in the South of the United States, or to find a good Rioja. By the time we stopped attending these meetings, in the 1990s you could find them anywhere.
Beyond these somewhat hedonistic experiences that accompanied our graver recruiting tasks, there were others in which culture and pleasure combined in the most agreeable manner. A most remarkable event comes to my mind. In one of our Atlanta meetings, the Association of Barber Shop Quartets held also a conference that took place in the same building that the one we were attending. I had never heard of such virtuoso musicians, and was very intrigued by these, as far as I know, exclusively American artists. David, with his characteristic good humor and confidence, approached a group and suggested that, since I was a Spaniard who had never had a chance of hearing them perform, it would be most hospitable for them to give me a private performance. Given the kindness of Americans in general, and of barbers in particular, it will surprise no one that they agreed and we had the most delightful musical afternoon followed, naturally, by some beers to which I was happy to invite the musicians to show my appreciation and gratitude. Or, and I end this digression in my narrative with this last story, our encounter in Kentucky with the Nobel Prize laureate Camilo José Cela, who was the guest of honor. For some reason that I cannot remember, a group of attendants (we were five altogether) among whom David and I were included, met with Cela. We were enjoying an animated conversation, something in what the great writer was a master, and the name of Mallorca, where Cela lived at the time, was mentioned. I said that my brother Antonio lived also in Palma, and Cela immediately exclaimed, “What! Antonio Herrero is your brother? He is my ophthalmologist! And a good friend! We must celebrate this amazing coincidence. And since we are in the South, let us have a round of old fashions!” Cela seemed so delighted that we did not dare to suggest that five cocktails with our lunch might bring unforeseen consequences. I have the vague memory of a most convivial meeting in which the joys of companionship, witty chatter, and delightful food joined with unique success. What has remained in my mind strangely fixed is that after the lunch David suggested that we (he and I) should go to see The House of Fools that was being played in a local theater. On the way a poor fellow asked us for money, one of us gave him a couple of dollars and he immediately entered a tavern. David commented ruefully and biblically, “Who can throw the first stone?” I remember that I slept through the whole movie.

I am not going to write a résumé of David’s unusual successful career. He is probably, since he has been the President of the International Association of Hispanists, one of the best known scholars in the world and I could add nothing new to what is well known or could be found in a look at his name in Google: that he had had all kind of successes; in teaching (award for the best professor); in writing (several books in Cambridge University Press); in administration (President of the Senate); in professional endeavors (committees for awards of literary prices; for cultural development, the most distinguished the one founded by the Duke of Soria, uncle of the King of Spain). Not only has David’s career been extraordinary for his uninterrupted series of impressive achievements, but also for having had some of the most original ones that can be found in the world of Academia, and I shall end this brief mention of them with this picturesque one: David has been, in several occasions, the Professor/ Admiral of the Semester at Sea, a kind of cultural cruise that navigated the waves of all the oceans imparting learning and tourism to hundreds of students.

And this brings us to the more intriguing and significant questions that I intended to discuss in the description of my personal experience of this, one of my dearest friends, along our many years of academic collaboration: Is David perfect? This is obviously the first question that comes to mind of everybody who reads what I have written above. The answer is, fortunately, No! First and foremost, let us say that his sin, the cloud that shadows his dazzling brightness, is not mortal. Not only is David essentially good; he is also an innocent and pure soul. You want a proof of it? Here it is: David waited avidly for the next volume of Harry Potter as they were being published, and once it appeared he would read it as he contemplated the impressive landscape that formed the background of his previous, lovely, house (the Blue Ridge Mountains). Which experience could be more uplifting than this one that combined literary excitement with the contemplation of God’s great art. But what documents clearly his spiritual cleanliness is the choice of his material: one of the greatest, and more profoundly educated scholars, tested by the profound work of the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement, finds peace and joy in the fantastic world of magic in which my grandson also delights.

What is then the nature of this weakness? Do we want more evidence of the miraculous fact that David has maintained the cleanness of youth through the rough experiences that life requires of us in the way to excellence and fame? Nothing more genuinely honest than the sincerity with which David delights in the perks of his well-deserved success: his Mercedes sports brings with it the evidence, not only of affluence, but of a debonair and daring spirit; the spectacular penthouse to which he moved recently confirms that he will live his later years in the ambiance that pertains to the friend of great artists, politicians, Europeans aristocrats… Innumerable photos in Facebook witness to the fact that he is celebrating the success of some event with the Duke of Soria, with the Spanish Minister of Culture, or with the Marquis of Tamarón; or dining with the great Spanish writers Muñoz Molina and Rosa Montero or Eduardo Mendoza. Better still is a selfie with the King of Spain. Is this snobbery? Most certainly not! And there is nothing phony or pretentious about this: David is too intelligent to fall into a Trumpian conceit and vulgarity. It is simply the joy that my grandson Rafa feels with the new motorized bike that I gave him for his birthday as a prize for his grades: the clean and somewhat self-ironic delight in the material dressings of spiritual success. Yes, David sees with irony his one display of glory and, when I comment his joyful display with affectionate mockery, accepts it with friendly humor. I am going to end this review of the many years of warm friendship with David with the reproduction (in its Spanish original) of a piece of correspondence between us that illustrates this ironic auto-celebration of David and my somewhat sardonic answer that he accepted with good sportsmanship.

On 8/2/2016 2:32 AM, Gies, David T. (dtg) wrote:

Querido Javier:

¿Qué tal? ¿Cómo estáis? Ya hace un mes que no sabes nada de nosotros. Me dicen que ha hecho muchísimo calor en Charlottesville; espero que hayáis sobrevivido bien.

Ya estamos en agosto; cómo vuela el tiempo. Janna y yo salimos esta mañana de Barcelona, donde llegamos a bordo del barco The World. Creo que mencioné el mes de julio que me esperaba, con tres eventos para mí importantes. Ya te cuento.

El 4 de julio me fui a Madrid para dar una (lo que llaman) “lección magistral” a la Fundación Duques de Soria. Da. Margarita (nota de Javier. Es la hermana del Rey) está indispuesta (ingresada por problemas de una cadera) pero el duque sí que estuvo, junto con Rafael Benjumea (conde de Guadalhorce, presidente de la FDS), José María Rodríguez Ponga (asesor de la FDS; su hermano Rafael es el Director del Instituto Cervantes) y Santiago, marqués de Tamarrón (ex-Director del Instituto Cervantes y ex-embajador español ante el Reino Unido). Un día super largo pero divertido. El resto del tiempo en Madrid lo pasé en la Biblioteca Nacional, viendo a los amigos, descansando.

Luego, el 9 de julio volé a Münster, Alemania, para presidir sobre el 18 Congreso de la AIH. Una semana intensa pero muy buena. Lo pasé fenomenal, la AIH sobrevivió mi presidencia y salí elegido Presidente de Honor.

De allí, el 17 volví a España, a Vigo, donde me reuní con Janna para subir The World, este barco en el que varios ricachones tienen casas. Es algo increible, difícil de explicar, de un lujo que no te puedes imaginar. Me habían invitado a dar 4 conferencias, que hice con Powerpoint en su elegante auditorio/teatro. Son cosas de alta divulgación: “4 cosas que sé de Portugal,” “La historia de España a través de su arquitectura,” “De Franco a Felipe: La España de hoy,” y “Barcelona, ¡a disfrutar!” Pero lo bueno, claro, es que viajamos con ellos durante 16 días, desde Vigo a Cascais (Portugal), Palma de Mallorca, Ciutadella, Mahón, Tarragona y Barcelona. La gente a bordo es excéntrica (cómo no) pero simpática; los días los pasamos en los puertos. Total que, un lujo y un privilegio.

Y se acabó. Volvemos a Charlottesville donde intentaremos vender la casa de Janna y preparar la nuestra para la venta, posiblemente en septiembre. Ya somos los dueños del nuevo piso en el centro y (obviamente) tengo que vender cosas para no terminar en la cárcel de deudores.

Espero verte pronto. Debemos pensar en retomar nuestros encuentros en Burtons.

Un fuerte abrazo,


Esta es mi respuesta: For those who understand the somewhat sardonic, although affectionate, irony, that pervades my letter, the fact that David accepts my benevolent mockery with respectful humor (“I read you with a smile in my lips” – was his answer) shows the strength of the bond of David’s respect for his elderly teacher and companion and, from my side, the justified pride in his successes that I covered with a light tease.

Querido David:

Sí, ha sido un verano difícil y duro para ti y, por supuesto, puedes contar con mi apoyo y comprensión, pero creo que también debes pensar que es precisamente de las penalidades de donde podemos sacar enseñanzas. Claro que la conducta del comité de la Fundación Duque de Soria es imperdonable. Todos esos duques, condes y marqueses deleitándose con exquisitos manjares y deliciosos vinos mientras tu intentabas entretenerlos con tus bien organizados y, sin duda, amenísimos poderosos/puntos! Y sin pensar que tú también tendrías un apetito y derecho, como aconseja el evangelio, a comer por tu predicación. Una inexcusable desatención! Pero de esa penosa experiencia puedes sacar la lección de la vanidad de las promesas de los poderosos.

Y qué decir de la abominable conducta de la A.I.H! Roger Ailes abusa de docenas de mujeres y Fox, en vez de meterlo en la cárcel, lo premia con cuarenta millones de dólares y a ti, que has dado una vida a la scholarship hispánica y seis años a esa institución, todo lo que te dan es un papel diciendo que eres un hombre honorable. Ha sido todo tu esfuerzo en vano? No, porque tú sabes que tu conciencia de haber cumplido con tu deber, y el conocimiento adquirido con tu esfuerzo, vale mucho más que esos millones de dólares!

Finalmente y aún más penoso, es el haber tenido que soportar durante tanto tiempo ese desquiciado lujo que yo sé cuanto detestas y como ofende a tu sentido de la frugalidad, a esa austeridad que siempre te ha marcado, a ti y todos tu hábitos, (viajes, comidas, coches …) todo ha estado marcado siempre por esa pasión por la oscura modestia que tanto admiramos tus amigos. Sí, has sufrido, pero cuantas enseñanzas has ganado, la vanidad de la riqueza, el vacío espiritual de los poderosos, y tantas otras lecciones que te preparan para gozar de tu retiro con una sólida, inalterable paz.

Nosotros no muy bien; Merche acaba de pasar (hemos pasado) dos días en el hospital pues tuvo varias caídas, una por la escalera. Se ha repuesto y no tiene nada serio, pero está débil y, como es natural algo asustada. Pero no es este un tema que me guste tocar. Ya hablaremos.

David has been, in the many years of our professional and personal relationship, not only a dear friend, but a member of our family, a younger brother. In one occasion in which Columbia University tried to steal him from us, I wrote to the Dean that apart of the many scholarly reasons for which his departure would be a loss for us, was the personal ones that I should lose the friend whose occasional companionship makes more acceptable the gloominess of old age, and that my wife will find, without him, the life in Charlottesville much less attractive.  What I have written here will show, I hope, why this is so.

By Javier Herrero,

Professor Emeritus, University of Virginia