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“Sometime in 2001 I began to have a major problem with my tennis game.” So began Professor of History Abbott Gleason’s report in the BAM five years ago about his struggle to remain mentally sharp and in control of his body in the years after he was diagnosed, in 2004, with Parkinson’s. The essay, “Twilight of a Historian,” was an excerpt from the memoir he published that year, A Liberal Education, and it was typical Gleason: smart, witty, self-deprecating, sharply observed, and brutally honest. Tom Gleason died on Christmas Day.

Gleason.jpg
Mark Ostow
Tom Gleason retained an office on campus at the Watson Institute for International Studies, where his old friend and companion Louis was a frequent visitor.

The Tom Gleason that emerges in A Liberal Education was the same inviting polyglot I first met almost twenty years ago, when I was still new at Brown and had asked Gleason if I could profile him for this magazine. We spent many hours together, many of them in his overstuffed office, where the bookcases appeared to be on the verge of collapsing under the weight of all the volumes he had managed to stuff into them. He had just published his first-rate Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War, which argued that the powerful communist and fascist regimes of the twentieth century, despite their divergent ideologies, shared one absolute characteristic: totalitarian control of their populations. As a Russian historian, Gleason was fascinated with the Soviet Union, and I was interested to see how the fall of that union of socialist republics a few years before might affect a historian whose area of expertise—the very rationale for his work, really—is suddenly and dramatically transformed.

We talked for hours about totalitarianism and about George Orwell and jazz—two shared interests—and I felt like a student again. I could imagine what it must have been like for the generations of intellectually curious students who have sat with Tom Gleason in that same office chair, engaged like two people sitting across a dinner table or on a bench in a park in Moscow sharing ideas as equals—except that one of us had read so much more, thought so much harder, and was so much more articulate. These were characteristics that Gleason wore with all the grace of a teacher who knew that the freshest thoughts are those that spark forth in conversation with the freshest minds.

“I was certainly onto something long ago,” Gleason wrote in A Liberal Education, “when I signed on to the academy. I needed an education, and I got it by learning how to help educate others. I needed to discover how many ways there are of being intelligent, how many ways of being open to the world. I learned that it is better to teach your students how to show what they can do than to demonstrate to them what you can do.”

Over the years, our paths crossed less and less often. I would usually approach him when I saw him walking across campus with his erect posture and his face that seemed to be always in thought, yet always ready for conversation. We’d chat for a few minutes, share our newest musical enthusiasms, and then be on our way. After Parkinson’s forced him to stop teaching, Gleason, eager to give free rein to his creative side, painted more. He also sought out the latest Parkinson’s treatments, in the hopes that his burning curiosity about life and people and ideas could continue as long as possible.

“Curiously enough,” he wrote in the BAM, “despite diminished capacity, you remain—or feel that you remain—the same person. In my experience, people are right when they say that inside every old person a young one is hidden. But that young person is a prisoner, held incognito with no hope of escape."

I still saw him around campus, but far less often, and you could see that much of his concentration was now focused on such basics as keeping his balance. “My gait is labored,” he wrote in A Liberal Education. “I have lost what Oliver Sacks, quoting William Harvey, calls ‘the silent music of the body.’” Now, when I stopped him, I would begin by reminding him of my name, but it wasn’t really necessary. He may not have remembered what to call me, but he still immediately engaged me in conversation. The intense curiosity was still there.

“Accepting that most of life's adventures are past—except the big one, of course—is less difficult than I thought it would be,” he wrote in the BAM. “There is more satisfaction in becoming a spectator: I watch birds at the feeder and observe my children's lives unfold. I cheered as the Red Sox deep-sixed the Curse of the Bambino. Yet my world is shrinking. Isolation, resignation, acceptance—I think I can deal with all that.” Over the last few years I lost track of Tom Gleason, and now I’m sorry I did.

He is survived by his wife, Sarah ’80 AM, and his children, Nick and Margaret.





Comments (11)
12/28/15
 
We can learn much about the full scope of our being human from observing those whom we respect and admire as they struggle with life's inevitable setbacks and losses. Thank you for this wonderful appreciation of Professor Gleason.
 
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12/28/15
 
Tom was an incredible human, so important to so many in academia and beyond. Kind, funny, all-knowing, generous. 
I was lucky to be one of Tom's first students at Brown, enrolled in his inaugural lecture course on Russian history in the fall of 1968. Apparently from anecdotes he told often and wrote about later, he was nervous to appear before the class and only relaxed when someone asked where he had acquired such a great map posted over the chalkboard. To this directionless, unmotivated 18-year-old sophomore from sunny California, Tom appeared a master of his subject and the very ideal of the New England intelligentsia. He also had the magic that drew in an audience, a talent he still possessed when my daughter Liz Young (Brown '13) attended his every word in several visits to the welcoming John Street home that he and Sarah opened to hundreds of students over the decades.  
Sincere condolences to Sarah, Meg and Nick.
 
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12/28/15
 
This is a wonderful tribute that only begins to describe the deep effect that Tom had on his students, friends, colleagues, family, indeed, everyone with whom he interacted. Through his careful yet bracing mentoring, Tom had a profound effect on my life as he did on the lives of so many.  
 
Thank you and farewell, Tom. We will all miss you so much! My deepest sympathies to Sarah, Nick and Meg and to Tom and Sarah's four grandchildren.
 
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12/30/15
 
Tom made this overwhelmed freshman (and hundreds more, I'm sure) feel both challenged and welcomed. He asked hard questions and waited patiently for our answers. The hours that I spent in his classroom, his office and his warm home were so rewarding. Being his student and becoming his friend were two of the highlights of my years at Brown.
 
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12/30/15
 
If you are fortunate, there are people in your life who have truly made a difference. I went to Brown in 1969 from what is now UMASS Dartmouth to study with Tom Gleason, and was one of his first graduate students. Unsure of myself at the time, he bolstered my confidence, became my mentor, encouraged me to take on new challenges, was my advocate, and simply helped me look at the world and my future in a different light. We kept in contact for many years, but that contact faded until he tracked me down after my 30 year government career to "catch-up" and to tell me about his autobiography. It was as if time had stopped and we talked like we had seen each other yesterday. Tom Gleason was one of a kind, a true scholar, an inspiring lecturer, a friend and mentor to countless many, and a classic example of what it means to be a decent and caring individual. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and blessed to be among those who have crossed his path.
 
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01/08/16
 
Professor Gleason was one of the best teachers I had a Brown. He made Russian history come alive. My condolences to Sarah, Nick and Meg.
 
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01/13/16
 
I had the pleasure of knowing him for many, many years..truly the most caring Scholar and Gentleman.
 
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01/15/16
 
follow-up from NMS
 
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01/22/16
 
Professor Gleason was a brilliant challenging teacher who ran a stimulating classroom.
 
01/29/16
 
Never having had an excuse for fitting one of Tom's courses into my broad Am Civ panoply, I knew him first as the tremendously admired and popular professor of my Morriss-Champlin residents when I was a resident mom. He was the ideal guest at our traditional sherry hours--charming, insightful, and obviously inspiring. A Liberal Education partly reveals the making of a truly generous patrician of the academy, who must be regarded as a star in Brown's firmament forever.
 
06/05/16
 
Written by Jane, Bob's wife of 61 years: As an Engineering student, Bob had little time to take advantage of Brown's liberal arts courses. He enjoyed filling in those gaps in retirement. We met Tom only once, in 2006 on a boat trip in Russia with the Brown Travelers. Tom was the leader and had his wife, daughter and mother along. What a surprise to read in the Brown Alumni Monthly several months later that Tom was retiring because he had Parkinsons. Bob had been diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease in 2003. Tom's description of his own problems, described in clear language what I sensed that Bob was also experiencing. Although our encounter with Tom was brief, he made an impression on both of us. 
 
My sincere sympathy to you and your family.
 
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