Remarks About Gill Holland "Soon to Retire..."
Tonight we honor a faculty member in the English Department who has served this college and its students for a total of almost 40 years. He has touched thousands of lives during that period, and we want to express our gratitude and appreciation as he looks forward to retirement. But his will be a retirement, I am sure, not of mere relaxation and rest, but of the same intellectual vitality and passionate curiosity that have been his hallmark all these years. For that is what we value in Gill Holland: his unceasing pursuit of a vast array of interests, from foreign languages and cultures as diverse as the Scandinavian and the Asian, to art history, the literature of 19th-century Britain, his field of expertise, theater, music, poetry writing, the history of ideas, and his abiding love, collegiate wrestling. But this list is hardly exhaustive. It might surprise some of the students here tonight to learn that Professor Holland is also a knowledgeable and gifted enthusiast of the fine art of . . . tending bar! (An interest he stumbled upon quite by accident while at Washington and Lee, which, I am told, is a university somewhere north of here.)
But to be serious for a moment, surely no one can do justice to Gill's remarkable presence over the years at Davidson College, other than to call it just that: a remarkable presence. You know when you are in the company of Gill Holland. When I came to Davidson for an on-campus interview back in 1982, he was one of the first people I met. And I thought to myself at the time, "man, this is what a college professor is supposed to be like. . . . And if this is what Davidson is all about, then I want to be here too. "
Never known as diminutive, Professor Holland has a way of engaging one in conversation that is anything but listless. There is always a story at the ready Ð he is a true raconteur of the ilk that seems to grow more and more rare as we get deeper and deeper into what is called the "Age of Communication," but what is really the age of chatter. Gill Holland values and cultivates the sequential, the building blocks that create a strong narrative edifice.
Perhaps that is the one thing that unites Gill's manifold curiosities and interests, in fact. It's the glad telling Ð and hearing Ð of good stories. He loves a good tale, a good anecdote, a well-plotted narrative line delivered in well-wrought diction, whether it be in English, Chinese, Norwegian, German, or one of the dialects of the American south, from drawling Piedmontese to the plangent patois of northern Alabama. His conviction is that everyone's got a story to tell, and that there are many more stories out there to discover, all the time, and that some are quite funny, some sad, and many are stranger than we may realize at first blush, indeed, the old saw "truth is stranger than fiction" has its own kernel of undeniable truth. Who knew, for instance, until we read Gill's memoir of China, that at Tianammin Square in 1989 two armies clashed in the night, one apparently in support of the student cause? A former U.S. marine in Bejing saw the spent shell casings of opposing tanks and told Gill about it. How many stories lurk in the background, suppressed by governments and societies? Gill's ear attends to such stories.
And this leads me to what I think we all treasure about Gill Holland, namely his sense of life as a supremely varied and rich experience to be seized and savored wherever and whenever possible. He has approached his life, his career as an adventure, an odyssey, and his enthusiasm is contagious and, speaking as a colleague and friend, invigorating and inspiring. Gill has always taken risks, explored new territory, and I mean this not only figuratively, in terms of fields of interest, but also literally. He was wandering in Europe as a young man in the 1950s, long before the scores of backpackers of my generation were "eurailing" it from country to country with a copy of Let's Go in our hands. On his first trip to Europe he ended up working on a farm near the city of Bremen, working and learning German. He ventured into communist East Germany when the Cold War meant that conditions there were grim indeed. Later, when his career as a scholar and teacher was already established, he set out audaciously to learn Chinese, embarking on another odyssey that took him and his family to Taiwan and later, took him and Siri to the mainland. I like his story about the strange looks he received from people he would greet early on during his first stay in Taiwan. Finally he was politely corrected by someone who told him the way he was pronouncing word for "hello" in Chinese actually sounded identical to the word for "seaweed." As usual his modesty and sense of irony saved the day.
At the heart of his love of stories, his love of literature, is what is common to all men and women of humane letters, I think, not merely a discriminating appreciation of aesthetics, although he certainly has that, but also a sense of empathy that embraces all creatures with a story to tell. Empathy for all creatures, that is, but the tyrants and bullies of this world. Beyond that, Gill constantly demonstrates a subtle and highly differentiated sense of connections, not only of the interconnectedness of lives, works, and events in the field of literary history, but of our own individual and institutional connections with the past. "Raffiniert" is the German word for this subtle sensibility, a word borrowed from French, and which in itself calls up a connection over time and across disciplines that I'm sure Gill would appreciate. "Raffiniert" is the word Albert Einstein used for the Creator whose handiwork he so admired, and which evoked such a profound sense of awe and wonder in the great physicist. Awe and wonder, these things are common to Gill Holland's approach to literature and life, though I must admit, the analogy with Einstein does get a bit strained here. (Perhaps I've been a little too free with my comparisons, in fact. After all, unlike Einstein, Gill never learned to play the violin.)
Let me conclude with a heartfelt thank-you which I venture to offer on behalf of everyone who has known you, admired you, and been inspired by you, Gill. For your loyalty and your strength, for your example as a scholar, teacher, and humanist, and for your preeminence as a storyteller, we are grateful. Thanks for reminding us that life can be a shimmering, fascinating odyssey. Thanks for demonstrating what it is to live the life of the mind, to really live the life of the mind, but also what it is to live fully, as a husband, father, a family man, a Christian, and finally, as a friend. Thanks for making your own odyssey a part of our odyssey. We are the richer for it. I would like to quote the final lines from Tennyson's poem Ulysses, and Gill, I would have quoted from the more modern version of the story by James Joyce but you've never been able to tell me what it says. (Not in English anyway.) Be that as it may, I once heard these lines by Lord Tennyson quoted in a political context, but they are so much more pertinent here, when honoring a man like Gill Holland, a true Ulysses of the soul and heart. It may be the time in your life, after 39 years of professing literature at Davidson College to enter into retirement. It may be time to take a break and to focus on your newer role as a grandfather, which I know you love. But those of us who have shared this time with you know that you will continue your intellectual quest, indeed, you various quests. And we hope you will do it from your customary perch in the library for months and years to come. From your Stammtisch as it were. But it is an understatement of immense proportions, if there can be such a thing, to say you will be missed in the classroom. Davidson will never be the same.
And so now I repeat the somewhat bittersweet words of the bard, for this is an occasion not without its poignancy:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
Thank you for all you have meant and mean to us.
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