June 11-24, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 11
Back Issues
Reunions Weekend 2004
Gilliam’s sense of place
Pay raises
Headlines @ U.Va.
Outstanding employees
Years of service
Doctor remembers Ronald Reagan
Klarman: WWII, not Brown, catalyst for Civil Rights Movement
Learning abroad: Becoming citizens of the world
Heritage Repertory Theatre now in 30th season
Reality TV wants you: Get political with Larry Sabato
Holidays for 2004
Attic find sheds light on life of WWI nurse
Gilliam’s sense of place
Counterintelligence, foreign service, governor’s mansion — nothing could pry his heart away from U.Va. for long
Alexander Gilliam
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.

By Matt Kelly

Alexander 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.

“The first Gilliam came here in 1829, and the family has [since] shown remarkably little imagination about the choice of college,” Gilliam said.

In 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.

After 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.

But 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.

“Trying 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.

“We 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. And we were part of it.”

Holton remembers Gilliam as his “helpful, right-hand man,” and a “marvelous handler of details.”

“He 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 and returned to the State Department to work as a liaison with Congress, but soon left the department a second time.

“I 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 his alma mater, working first for U.Va. President Edgar Shannon and then editing the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Blackford encouraged Gilliam to take a job with Shannon’s 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 VIII, and to examine his own motives.

“As I drew abreast of my old room on the Lawn, the door opened and the woman who lived there came out,” Gilliam said.

The sight of a woman living on the Lawn struck him as right and proper, even though women had not been admitted as undergraduates when he was enrolled. “I figured I wasn’t suffering so much from the ‘old grad’ syndrome,” he said.

Glad to know that he was not horrified by the changes in his school, Gilliam walked into 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. As part 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, a visit with students in a Lawn room and a reception in the Rotunda, followed by lunch for 120 people. It took him months to organize the successful four-hour affair, working with state and federal officials on protocol and security issues.

“When it was over, I went home, mixed a strong drink and sat in the shower for 20 minutes,” Gilliam said.

Today, Gilliam inhabits a corner office on the ground floor of the Rotunda. The office not only commands a view of the Grounds, but it also possesses 10-foot-high walls plastered with photos, paintings, plaques and program covers detailing U.Va. life throughout the 20th century.

Such daily sights trigger fond memories, although Gilliam’s reminiscences of his years at the University flow together, seldom focusing on individual events.

“You 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 III, walk the Lawn and graduate from the University in 1997.

The University has always represented home to him, as he spent much of his childhood in Charlottesville at his grandmother’s house, only four blocks from Grounds.

“I 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 were.”


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