Gleason—a Man of the Word

Faculty member and former head of school Dick Baker delivered these remarks on Sept. 13, in Lawrence Auditorium:
“In the beginning /was the Word”

Now I know only enough about that line from the gospel to understand that it is freighted with many doctrinal disagreements, but for me it encapsulates Gleason. [Forgive me if I call him occasionally by his last name. In our world he was Gleason, I was Baker.] He was a man of the Word in the most literal and commonplace sense. He wrote books, he talked, he lectured, he conversed; words poured from him in every way. But language had for him a higher purpose; it was the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, his way of connecting with others, creating a spiritual bond.

I first met Ted in April of 1971, just after he had hired me as the new head of the English Department for the following school year. I believe I was the first individual he hired as headmaster-elect. I flew east from Berkeley, and then, on an snowy afternoon, drove to Exeter, where he was still the school minister, and spent the day and night talking with him. And when I say “the night,” I mean the whole night. We went to bed at 6 a.m. after an extended romp through our personal histories, our taste in literature, our dreams about the future.

In my first year at Nobles I taught a course called “Education In English,” an introduction to what was going on in the field of education, something I knew absolutely nothing about, having been a reclusive scholar of the American 18th century for the previous six years. So I assigned my students to read everything I could find about contemporary education, and they in turn reported to me on what they discovered. Our favorite book, one I went on to teach for years, was Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Postman’s thesis was that education should work against the mainstream culture, which in the early 60’s meant having to be “subversive.” I don’t think Gleason liked the idea of subversion very much, and he was pleased to be able to chide me when Postman came out with a new book in the early 70’s, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, that argued against the excesses of the 60’s.

The irony in all this was that Ted represented in his headship, the perfect Postman personality—subversive when things became too traditional (he had changed the liturgy as minister at Exeter, shook up the hidebound at Nobles when he was first appointed Head). But he was also deeply conservative, a man who respected values that had been formed in the crucible of time. And because of that apparent dichotomy in his attitudes, an ability to lean both to the subversive and the conservative, he was the perfect man for his time. His charisma, which was substantial, depended upon that paradox, that protean quality, very nearly that of a shape-shifter.

I would never had gotten along so well with him were it not for his sense of humor and a wonderful quirk of the outrageous. Linda Woodward reminded me recently of a story that highlighted those qualities. In the admissions office she was speaking with a particularly skeptical parent who was nervous about turning over his child to an Episcopal priest who would, in his mind, proselytize. He wanted some assurance against that. At about that moment, the interview was broken up by a clamor outside the door, and Linda and the parent went out to see that Moses, Ted’s beloved cat, had escaped from Ted’s office and was running around the larger admissions office on the top of the various office dividers followed on the floor by Dick Flood’s two bassett hounds, baying at their desired prey, with Ted following the Basset hounds and yelling, “God damn it, Moses, God Damn it.” The parent went back into the office and ended the meeting by saying to Linda, “This school will do very nicely for my daughter.”

I’ve reached that time in my life when friends die at an accelerating rate. One of things that I note sadly is how quickly we get on with our lives after the experience of such a death. I’m pleased to report that I have not been able to get on so easily after Ted’s death. Over the past nine months, an event would occur in my life, and my impulse was to catalogue it so as to be able to tell Gleason (as I had done for years), and then I’d think…

Ted was a wonderful mentor to me, not exactly a father-figure, although my own father died when I was 11 and perhaps I had always been looking for a replacement. Ted was more a big brother.

For the past five years, I have driven back and forth to South Carolina four or five times a year and managed on most trips to stop and see Ted and Anne in Washington. The scenario became familiar. I would leave Beaufort, South Carolina, at 9 in the evening, drive through the Carolina night and arrive in Washington in time to have “breakfast with the Gleasons.” It was a cultured moment. Ted, even in his most hobbled condition, would be waiting for me at the elevator and, with that booming voice, would bellow, “Baker.” He’d limp back to the apartment, and we’d sit down to coffee—food was always an important stimulus to conversation with Ted. Ted sat on an elevated chair, purchased to ease the problem of eventually having to get up from that chair. I thought the elevation appropriately symbolic. Ted would boom questions, becoming more exaggerated as the minutes passed, while Anne would insert a far more reasoned, non-hyperbolic intelligence. The perfect team. But Gleason and I loved the outrageous story, and on those occasions we laughed and we laughed and we laughed.

Sitting with the two of them, a couple whose lives were so intertwined I had difficulty imagining one without the other, I often mused (worried, really), what would happen if Anne were to die before Ted, leaving Ted alone without her. I felt that was the more difficult scenario.

I think they worked it out extraordinarily well…I wish I could have managed the same.

Finally, I’d like to return to John: “In the beginning was the Word,” and the passage continues, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” I can spin that line a dozen ways in relationship to Ted, but what I want to leave you with is that, besides being a man of the Word, Ted was a man of God, an equivalency [Word and God], as I understand it, that the passage from John intends. A non-believer like myself has a hard time understanding what a “man of God” entails. What it simply came to mean for me was Ted Gleason.

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