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Smooth as Gless: Administrator believes in doing what he is asked to do

DARRYL J. GLESS has held many titles over the course of his distinguished career. The oldest, and the one he cherishes most, is F.O.B. – Friend of Bill.

His friendship with former President Bill Clinton began when they both were Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford. They may not have sat in the same classroom, Gless said, but Clinton had a way of turning any experience into a classroom of his own making.

Gless remembers the trip a group of Rhodes Scholars took from Oxford to Stratford to see a production of King Lear. On the bus ride back, Clinton talked extensively with Gless about the scene in which Lear is turned out of the castle and forced to seek shelter in a hovel, where he encounters the poor and finally develops an understanding for how his subjects were forced to live.

It was his empathy with the poor and his belief that government can be used as an instrument to help them that drew Clinton into politics, Gless said.

During that bus ride, they also discovered the many things they had in common.

“Bill is wonderfully modest and he always listened to everybody – and listened to me of all things,” Gless said.

Both were small-town boys: Clinton hailed from Hope, Ark.; Gless from Schuyler, Neb. Their mothers were nurses and their fathers died much too young. Clinton’s father died in a car accident three months before he was born, and Gless’ father died of a heart attack at age 47 during Gless’ senior year in high school.

“I went to the University of Nebraska, which is where hotshots went from my kind of town, and it was wonderful for me,” Gless said. “I had no college graduates in my family. My older brother had gone to Nebraska and flunked out the previous year because of a time management problem. I worked like a dog because I was afraid I would follow my brother.”

His diligence paid off with a Rhodes scholarship that changed his life in ways he could not have imagined back in Schuyler, Gless said. Among his other classmates at Oxford were Robert Reich, who went on to serve as Clinton’s secretary of labor, and State Talbot, who served as deputy secretary of state under Madeleine Albright.

“I was around so many more accomplished people that it infused me with humility,” said Gless. “It made me think, as I had all my life, that I had to try harder.”

After completing his master of philosophy degree at Oxford in 1971, Gless earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University four years later.

It was winning the Rhodes, however, that he said infused him with a lifelong sense of obligation to do what he was asked to do. It is a key reason he accepted the appointment by Clinton in 1994 to serve on the National Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

During the past 29 years, Gless has demonstrated that same unflagging sense of service to Carolina, which the University acknowledged in honoring him with a 2009 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Gless, a respected scholar of the works of Shakespeare and Spenser, joined Carolina’s English department in 1980, one year after his first major book was published.

The book was a study of Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure,” which deals with the issues of mercy, justice and truth and their relationship to pride and humility. Gless sought to examine the work within the wider context of the theological, philosophical and political thinkers of Shakespeare’s day who may have influenced him.

That book, in an unexpected way, caused him to leave the University of Virginia after seven years; it was cited as one reason he was denied tenure there. Faculty viewed the book’s historical interpretations as outside the bounds of traditional scholarship, Gless said, but he believed the whole idea of scholarship was to push those bounds to expand understanding.

That disagreement, plus an unabashed love for teaching undergraduates, led him to Carolina. Here, Gless said, he knew he had found a home in an institution that refused to treat teaching and scholarship as mutually exclusive goals.

Gless earned tenure and continued to teach as he provided administrative leadership in many areas.

From 1987 to 1992, Gless oversaw the evaluation of the undergraduate curriculum as associate dean for general education. For the next three years, he served as director for the University-wide self-study for reaccreditation.

In 1998, as chair of the Morgan Writers Program, Gless helped initiate the biennial North Carolina Literary Festival, held here earlier this month, that alternates among Carolina, Duke and N.C. State.

From 1997 to 2005, he served as senior associate dean for the fine arts and humanities and oversaw the development of the First Year Seminar Program, now considered to be one of the best of its kind in the nation.

He also co-authored a proposal that ultimately produced the Robertson Scholars Program, which for the past decade has allowed outstanding students from Carolina and Duke to enjoy the academic, cultural and service opportunities at both institutions.

Along the way, Gless earned a Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

He said the utilitarian purpose of literature for students is that it allows them to examine “language that is working as intensely as language can work” to trigger an imaginative response.

For literature to live, he believes, various readers must find their own meaning in a particular work based on their values, beliefs and life experiences as they try to understand the author’s intended meanings.

“When you are studying old literature, even though it comes out of a culture that we think is our own, the interactions between people are so different – they are the same and yet they are different – that you are able to examine things that are of continuous importance but see them from angles that surprise and illuminate,” Gless said.

In 1991, he co-edited a volume of essays on “The Politics of Liberal Education” that helped to refocus his scholarly interest in improving education by increasing racial, ethnic and other kinds of diversity in university classrooms.

“One of the things that I say to my students that I have experienced is that you learn the most when you open your mind to ideas that run against all of your reflexes,” Gless said.

Winning a Massey was almost as surprising as winning the Rhodes, he said, and no less humbling when he thought about the hard work of others who have been so honored.

During the spring awards banquet, Gless was dumbfounded when the citation was read. “I wanted to say some nice things afterward, but it was the first time in years I was left speechless,” he said. “I was so eager to get back to my seat that I just made a kind of silly joke and ran.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 30, 2009

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