The English faculty mourns the loss of our friend and colleague, the Reverend Doctor Cynthia Gilliatt, who passed away suddenly Tuesday, August 16, 2011, after a short illness. Dr. Gilliatt, Associate Professor of English for 37 years, taught Milton, Seventeenth-Century Literature, The Bible as Literature, Mythology, and Gay and Lesbian Literature, a course she developed. Dr. Gilliatt was a founding member of Safe Zones at JMU and of Integrity/Virginia, a faith-based organization that provided spiritual space and counsel for gay members of the Episcopal Church. She was a dedicated teacher whose generosity of spirit, delight in the written word, and wicked sense of humor warmed all who knew her. A passionate advocate for the liberal arts, she once wrote that,
“A liberal arts education liberates you. It liberates you from ignorance and from knowing only
a narrow part of your own culture. It liberates you to think usefully about new ideas and
new encounters with cultures other than your own. It liberates you from thinking in stereotypes,
from naively accepting statements that begin with 'Everyone knows…'. It liberates you
from accepting easy answers to hard questions.”
Dr. Gilliatt retired from JMU in 2008 to an even more active career in the church. She was Priest Associate at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Priest-in-Charge of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Blue Grass, VA, and before her retirement, she served as Chaplain to the Canterbury Club at JMU. An undergraduate award is to be established in her honor.
On September 14th, 2014, our colleague and friend Helen McDuffie Poindexter, Professor of English Emerita, died at the age of 88. For those in the department who didn't know Helen, this remembrance will seem an exaggeration; for those of you who did know her, it will seem understated.
Helen Poindexter was a woman of immense warmth and strength, who for years was the presiding spirit of an uncommonly close English department.
Helen received her undergraduate degree from West Virginia University and her masters from then Madison College where she became a member of the faculty in 1959 and later earned tenure. She resigned that tenured position to move to the Philippines with her family including her three daughters, Kathy, Karis, and Kristen, but not before winning a place in the doctoral program at the University of Virginia. The eminent textual bibliographer and flinty traditionalist Fredson Bowers was acting Chair at the time and told her, “You know you’re taking some man’s place.” Yes, and he was to learn that she was worth two. Her move to the Philippines meant that she would finish her dissertation on Faulkner while she was teaching at the University of the Philippines and defend it long distance, a defense supervised by the thoroughly persuaded Professor Bowers.
She returned to Madison College where her courses on Southern Literature, on Black Literature, and on her beloved Faulkner were favorites among our students and where she earned tenure a second time. She was an active and fearless member of the Faculty Senate and an eloquent and passionate spokeswoman for the concerns of the department.
And that would be legacy enough, but it doesn’t at all explain what Helen meant to us. Contagiously gregarious, reflexively generous, and an effortless party giver, Helen wove all of us into what amounted to an English department salon. Before Keezell was remodeled, the department had a spacious lounge where at lunch you would find a room full of people (some sitting on the floor when the sofas and chairs were taken) talking not only about a bad student or an unreadable paper but also about the joys they found in the classroom and in their studies. And Helen was frequently at the center of those great conversations, conversations that overflowed into the weekends – and frequently into her home.
In 1979 that home became an even happier venue for her colleagues, when she married James E. Poindexter, a former head of the department, and, as he was once introduced to a new faculty member, “our Atticus Finch.”
In 1987 Helen was a Faculty Member in Residence for JMU’s Semester in London, and her student evaluations bore witness to the special rapport she had with students. In 2002, a former student of Helen’s wrote a tribute to her in Madison’s “Professors You Love” series. That student, now on the faculty at the University of Colorado, said of Helen what we would all want said of us: “I can only hope that the passion I have for literature, for language, for writing and expression, comes close to hers, and that I might be able to spark that same passion in the students who enter my classroom.”
Our friend and colleague died peacefully after a long struggle with Parkinson's. Her family was at her bedside, and her daughter Karis was reading Faulkner to her when Helen slipped away. No sound, no fury.
A memorial service for Helen will take place at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg at the corner of Maryland and High at 11 a.m. on Saturday the 4th of October. Fittingly, everyone is welcome.
---By Ralph Cohen, Professor Emeritus, James Madison University.