Gilliam’s sense of place
Counterintelligence, foreign service, governor’s
mansion — nothing could pry his heart away from U.Va.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
|In January 1968, Alexander Gilliam became the first State
Department employee to learn that the Tet Offensive in Saigon,
Vietnam, had begun. These days he puts his skills in diplomacy
and protocol to good use as secretary to the Board of Visitors,
a post he has held since January 1991.
G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. has worked at the University
for nearly 30 years, as special assistant to three presidents
and secretary to the Board
of Visitors. He is also an alumnus,
and from the beginning, there was very little question where
he would go to school.
first Gilliam came here in 1829, and the family has [since]
shown remarkably little imagination about the choice of college,” Gilliam
the late 1930s, Mary Proffit, secretary to Ivey Lewis, the
dean of the College, told a then 4-year-old Gilliam he would
attend U.Va., as had his father. And he did, earning a history
degree in 1955 and later taking several graduate courses.
a hitch in the Army, working in counterintelligence, and
a year of graduate school at U.Va., Gilliam taught at St.
Christopher’s in Richmond. Then he joined the foreign
service in the early 1960s, specializing in the Middle East.
After two years at the embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, Gilliam
was reassigned to Chad, in Africa, where he also ran a consulate
in neighboring Cameroon for several months.
even in Africa, U.Va. was never far away. Gilliam, now
70, remembers one occasion, when the daughter of the Cameroon
consulate’s new administrative officer took a semester
off from her Washington-based college to live with her parents
in Africa. “They had a party to introduce her to people
at the embassy, and I turned up in my Bass Weejuns. She took
one look at my shoes and said, ‘You went to U.Va.,
didn’t you?’” he recalled.
Following years in the field, Gilliam returned to Washington
to study Arabic, which he continued in Beirut.
to learn Arabic is pure, unadulterated pain,” he
said. “Now and then you will read in popular press
about the sinister Arabists in the State Department plotting.
Arabists do band together, but it has nothing to do with
politics. It is just shared misery.”
Gilliam’s job at the State Department involved gathering
information for the secretary, which included answering the
telephone lines coming into the department from U.S. embassies.
On one memorable day in January 1968, he answered an incoming
call from the embassy in Saigon, Vietnam. “It was the
Marine guard … , saying the Viet Cong were trying to
batter the door down,” he said. “It was the
beginning of the Tet Offensive.”
Eventually, Gilliam left the State Department and
joined Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton’s administration, where
two old friends, Staige D. Blackford and John Ritchie,
both U.Va. alumni, were already established.
felt we were in on some really fascinating stuff,” Gilliam
said of his new position. “[Holton] was doing all
kinds of things to open up state government in Virginia.
were part of it.”
Holton remembers Gilliam as his “helpful, right-hand
man,” and a “marvelous handler of details.”
was always agreeable and calm and willing to see both sides,” the former governor said, noting that Gilliam’s
diplomatic experience was indispensable when Holton traveled
to Israel during his tenure.
When Holton left office, Gilliam turned down
an offer from incoming Gov. Mills Godwin
to work as a liaison with Congress, but
soon left the department a second time.
had concluded some years earlier that it was highly doubtful
that I would ever have any affect whatsoever
on the conduct of American foreign policy, and my second stint
in the department
just confirmed that impression,” Gilliam said.
In the meantime, Blackford had returned
to his hometown of Charlottesville and
President Edgar Shannon and then editing
the Virginia Quarterly Review.
to take a job with
successor, Frank Hereford. Gilliam had doubts about working
for his old school, fearing, at 41, that he might be attempting
to recapture the lost days of youth.
He drove from Washington on a gray November
day, in a foul mood himself, to see
Hereford in his
office in Pavilion
and to examine his own motives.
I drew abreast of my old room on the Lawn, the door opened
and the woman who lived there came
The sight of a woman living on the
Lawn struck him as right and proper,
had not been
undergraduates when he was enrolled. “I figured I wasn’t suffering
so much from the ‘old grad’ syndrome,” he
Glad to know that he was not horrified
by the changes in his school, Gilliam
Hereford’s office a
few minutes later, and said, “Doubts resolved,” and
took the job.
Yet, even in academia, foreign
affairs continued to follow Gilliam.
of the nation’s bicentennial celebration
in July 1976, he arranged a visit from the Queen of England
to U.Va. The queen’s trip
included a walk on the Lawn,
visit with students in a Lawn
room and a reception in the Rotunda,
followed by lunch
for 120 people.
to organize the successful four-hour
affair, working with state and
on protocol and
it was over, I went home, mixed a strong drink and sat in
the shower for 20 minutes,” Gilliam
Gilliam inhabits a corner
office on the ground floor
of the Rotunda.
a view of the
Grounds, but it also possesses
10-foot-high walls plastered
photos, paintings, plaques
and program covers detailing
Such daily sights trigger
fond memories, although
reminiscences of his years at the University flow together,
seldom focusing on individual events.
have to consider the totality of the experience,” he
said. “I look back on the people, on the place, on
the spirit of learning.”
The highlights of Gilliam’s tenure at U.Va. include
the pleasure of working just up the hill from his friend,
Staige Blackford, for 28 years until Blackford’s
death in 2003, and seeing his own son, Alexander Gilliam
the Lawn and graduate from the University in 1997.
The University has
home to him,
as he spent much
of his childhood
house, only four blocks from Grounds.
think for Virginians a sense of place, at least for my generation,
is important,” Gilliam said. Over time, “I
began to realize my roots were stronger than I thought they