At the end of the month, the University of Virginia will say goodbye to one of its longest-tenured and most beloved employees.
Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam, the university’s historian, is one of a few people who can truly say he has lifelong ties to UVa. The men in his family have been attending UVa since the 19th century.
As a child, he remembers visiting the old natural history museum in Brooks Hall. He graduated in 1955 and came back to work at the university in 1975.
He hasn’t left since.
“It’s been at the center of things all my life,” said Gilliam, who turned 81 last month. He’s been semi-retired since 2009, and plans to retire for good June 30, although he said he wants to continue writing about UVa. He also said he plans to write a tell-all memoir.
Gilliam is an institution on UVa Grounds. He’s had a few titles — most notably, he served 18 years as secretary to the board of visitors — but he’s best known as a living history book, both a scholar and primary source of UVa history.
People who have worked with Gilliam also characterize him as extraordinarily generous with his time and knowledge.
Robert Viccellio, editor of the University of Virginia Magazine, recalls seeking help on a story looking back on the 1953 funeral for Seal, the university’s beloved canine mascot.
Gilliam helped Viccellio get in touch with an old friend of his, one of the students who helped to organize the funeral. The man was severely ill in a nearby nursing home, so Gilliam decided to visit him. He printed out pictures from the funeral to help cheer him up.
“It’s the last time he really saw this guy light up and be happy,” Viccellio said, adding that the friend died not long after the visit.
“It’s something I thought sort of speaks to how he does things,” Viccellio said. “He’s got a big heart.”
Thomas Faulders, president and CEO of the university’s alumni association, described Gilliam’s knowledge as “encyclopedic,” and said he’s always willing to share it.
“His knowledge of not just the university, but of the people and events that have shaped the university, is unparalleled,” Faulders said in an email.
Gilliam’s knowledge of the university is apparent to anyone who talks to him, as is his passion for all things UVa. He said he sees it as a special place that has a unique spirit that combines a sense of community with fierce individuality.
He can trace that spirit all the way back to UVa’s early years, which were characterized by unrest that occasionally spilled into physical violence. The murder of law professor John A.G. Davis led to a toning down of the violence and to students creating an honor code in which they agreed to report bad behavior.
“The honor system has changed — it’s in a constant state of evolution but still means something,” Gilliam said. “It still represents some of the core values of this place.”
But the university never quite lost its rebellious nature. Instead, students channeled it into things like student government, which has traditionally been fiercely independent, and activism. Gilliam recalls taking part in protests in the 1950s.
“We demonstrated when enrollment got over 5,000,” he said. “We thought it was getting too big.”
He left the university for the U.S. Foreign Service, where he served stints in Israel, Cameroon, Chad and Lebanon. It was during a miserable summer in Washington when he decided to come back.
It was 1974 — the summer before the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. The atmosphere in Washington was toxic, Gilliam said, and he wanted out. He complained about it to a friend of his, the new editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Later that summer, Frank Hereford, the university’s new president, began courting Gilliam as a special assistant.
But the foreign service officer was having second thoughts. He recalled feeling “depressed” when he came to Grounds for a visit in November 1974. Maybe, he said, he was just trying to recapture magic that was no longer there.
He changed his mind when he saw a female student outside his old room on the Lawn, still a fairly new development at a school that had restricted women to a few fields of study until 1970.
“I thought to myself, it’s perfectly right and proper [to come back],” he said. “The place had changed and it had changed for the better.”
He was hired the following year, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Nearly 40 years later, as he prepares for retirement, Gilliam jokes that he’s still young at heart. Perhaps part of him did want to recapture his youth, he said.
“Maybe I’ve never grown up,” Gilliam said. “I’m still a first-year student.”