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Gerald R. Gill, at 59; was professor of history, integral part of Tufts' campus


It's safe to say that Gerald R. Gill never crossed the Tufts University campus quickly. There were just too many people to greet along the way.

"The most important thing to know about Gerald Gill was that he touched everyone," said Jeanne Marie Penvenne, an associate professor of history whose office was down the hall and who often accompanied Dr. Gill on what turned into long strolls to grab a bite of food.

"He knew everyone in the entire Tufts community," she said, "from the woman who handed him his cup of coffee in the morning to the custodian cutting the grass, to his students, to his students' parents, to his graduate students."

His classes filled to capacity, and yet he memorized the name of each student. A scholar of African-American history in the 20th century, he took pains to bridge the gaps between various ethnic communities on campus. He also served as a key consultant on numerous broadcasts, including the award-winning television series "Eyes on the Prize."

Dr. Gill died of arterial sclerosis July 26 in his Cambridge home. He was 59 and had been honored so often for his teaching that one prize, the distinguished service award bestowed by the Africana Center-African American Center at Tufts, was renamed for him seven years ago.

"He's absolutely beloved in the department and across the university," said Virginia Drachman, who chairs the Tufts history department, for which Dr. Gill was deputy chairman. "He devoted himself to Tufts. He was the kind of person you could go to and he never said no. The students adored him. You couldn't walk across campus without student after student after student calling out to him. He was the kind of person who, if you went to Tufts, you were told to make sure you take a class with Professor Gill."

Arriving in Boston on a fellowship at Harvard University in 1979, Dr. Gill became intrigued by the city's racial history.

"I was trying to come to grips with a city I didn't like," he told the Globe in 1997.

Two years ago, he touched on the subject again in an interview conducted by a Tufts student for a profile that is posted on the university's website.

"I became interested in looking at race relations and African-American protests in Boston, largely because many of my friends from graduate school asked me questions about why I was staying in Boston," he said in the interview. "Boston doesn't have the best reputation in terms of being a city that's hospitable towards African-Americans. There are people who would argue that Boston is the most racist city in the United States."

Pointing out that some of the modern era's most publicized racial incidents have occurred in New York City and Los Angeles, he added, "Each city has its own racialized history."

Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., Dr. Gill graduated with a degree in history from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., in 1970, then taught eighth-grade social studies for two years in New Rochelle.

In 1974, he received a master's degree in US history from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and pursued a doctorate while working as a research assistant and research fellow at the college. Dr. Gill received a doctorate in history from Howard in 1980, the year he began teaching at Tufts.

Having studied the history of African-American opposition to wars in the 20th century that involved the United States, Dr. Gill secured conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War with the help of US Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first African-American candidate from a major party to run for president.

Dr. Gill quickly became a popular professor on the Tufts campus with eye-catching approaches to the topics he taught. He asked history students at the outset of the school year to name 10 prominent African-American men who were no longer alive. If they succeeded, he asked them to name 10 black women.

During his early years at the front of the class, he found that many students were hard-pressed to name four women. Not until the early 1990s could his students regularly name 10 in each category, a change he attributed to the increased emphasis on African-American history in high schools.

In a profession in which many professors are more interested in publications than students, Dr. Gill was a lively exception, colleagues say. A tribute page on the Tufts website has dozens of entries from colleagues and from former students who had taken his classes, such as African-American history, the Civil Rights movement, and sports in American history.

"His courses were unbelievably popular," said Drachman, the Arthur and Lenore Stern Professor of American History at Tufts. "People came into this school knowing that Professor Gill's was the course to take before they left. When my daughter came to Tufts, I made a promise to her that I would never look for her, I would never call her, I would never tell her what to do, except for one thing, to take a class with Professor Gill."

He was voted Professor of the Year for Massachusetts twice, according to the university. Dr. Gill also was the first to be awarded the Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Outstanding Teaching and Advising, and the first to receive the Tufts Community Senate's Professor of the Year Award. In 1995, he was among the teachers honored by the Carnegie Foundation.

Dr. Gill saw such awards as an endorsement of the notion that professors should step away from campus and immerse themselves in civic affairs.

"I would like to see historians more actively involved in public policy concerns," he told the Globe in 1995.

Within the relatively small African-American community at Tufts, Dr. Gill was a key figure, but he made sure that race never limited his interaction with the campus.

"I can think of a score of young black men for whom he was a role model, a mentor; he never let them down," Penvenne said. "And I can say the same for many young white men and young Asian-American men. He was everyone's man. It didn't matter."

"This loss is more than just of an individual," Drachman said. "He was part of the essence of the school. He helped to make Tufts what Tufts is."

Dr. Gill, whose marriage ended in divorce, leaves a daughter, Ayanna Ettann Gill-McGee of Jackson, Miss.; two sisters, Willie Butler and Mary Smith, both of Germantown, Md.; and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today in Goddard Chapel at Tufts University.