By Abby Wargo
Barbara-Ellen Gillin, the co-founder and co-director of Washington College’s Kiplin Hall summer program and lecturer in the English department, passed away on December 28, 2019.
She was the wife of Dr. Richard Gillin, recently retired Ernest A. Howard Professor of English Literature and co-founder and co-director of the Kiplin Hall program.
“In life, if you love somebody and you have somebody that loves you back, that’s golden. To have the love of your life and to integrate that into what we did, in terms of teaching, that was the thing that was always infused in what we both did together: we loved literature, we loved working with students, and we both loved the classroom,” Dr. Richard Gillin said.
A memorial service was held at Sacred Heart Church in Chestertown on January 11. Last Thursday, January 23, a College farewell reception was held in Baltimore to celebrate Dr. Gillin’s retirement and remember Barbara Gillin. They had been looking forward to attending the event together before her passing.
Dr. Richard Gillin said of the event, “The kindness that was expressed by students who were there was re-doubled by my children, who said, “Not many people get the opportunity to hear people say that you changed my life,” and talking about Barbara in particular, that she literally changed their lives for the better.”
English professor, Department Chair, and Director of Writing Dr. Sean Meehan said he associates College tradition with the Gillins, and that they represent “a kind of community” here.
Barbara Gillin was an “active part” of the life of the College for the 40 years she was involved here; her husband took a job teaching English in 1973 and in that year she was hired at WC on a part-time basis to teach a children’s literature course. That course was influential for many students, Dr. Richard Gillin said.
“She was really an excellent storyteller, and she would illustrate that, she would have students tell stories as well and learn how to do that without relying on a book or anything electronic,” Dr. Richard Gillin said.
In addition to her work at WC, Barbara Gillin was a lifelong teacher. She taught at every level for over 40 years. Most recently, she taught third- and fourth- graders at Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown while remaining part-time at WC and teaching lectures in the evenings.
Despite her husband and children also being teachers, Dr. Richard Gillin described Barbara as the “teacher of the family” because of her good sense, organizational skills, the ability to make something difficult understandable, and a good understanding of group dynamics.
“She had a feel for how to communicate to students on a variety of levels,” Dr. Richard Gillin said.
Dr. Richard Gillin added that she had a “very, very fast mind,” and that she could accurately compute large columns of numbers in her head.
“She was an incredible storyteller, a great raconteur, she seemed to know everything about everyone,” said Dr. Katie Charles, assistant professor of 18th- and 19th-century literature and the new director of Kiplin Hall. She described Barbara as a hard-working, observant, “fast-talking dame” with a quick wit.
Dr. Charles described Dr. and Mrs. Gillin as a “total unit,” and that they perfectly complemented one another.
Jack Despeaux, class of 2018 and Kiplin Hall alumnus, described Barbara Gillin as “a firecracker.”
“She didn’t have the capability of stopping,” he said.
In addition to her teaching at WC, Barbara Gillin also helped establish the academic skills center on campus in the 1980s.
Perhaps her biggest contribution to the WC community is the Kiplin Hall program, a three-week summer English course spent hiking in England and Scotland learning about literature. Along with her husband, Barbara Gillin co-founded and co-directed the program for almost 20 years.
“The Kiplin trip has turned out to be a thing we both thoroughly enjoy. She made it alive,” Dr. Richard Gillin said.
Dr. Richard Gillin gave Barbara full credit for organizing the initial, and all subsequent, trips, since she completed all the administrative tasks like buying plane tickets, renting vans, and coordinating plans with the business office.
Dr. Meehan highlighted Barbara Gillin’s planning, and logistical skills, especially concerning the Kiplin Hall trip, and Dr. Charles also commended Barbara Gillin’s administrative mindset.
“Barbara was a good enforcer. Her will is what would be done,” Despeaux said.
On the trip, he said she would organize the cooking schedules in the evenings, and make sure things were running smoothly in general.
Dr. Meehan described Barbara Gillin as, “incredibly supportive but also effective.”
“That’s particularly unique…a real combination of a kind of strength she has to organize and a willingness to help,” he said.
Dr. Richard Gillin talked about how, on the trip, she would give students advice in her van, calling it a “mobile counseling center.” She would help and motivate any student who needed it, even holding hands with students who didn’t think they would be able to finish the hike.
“When I think about their level of generosity, they gave with an open hand, to a degree that’s staggering, but when I try to make sense of it, it must be true that they gave so generously that that generosity was returned to them,” Dr. Charles said of the Gillins’ willingness to help their students.
That compassion returned to the Gillins in bushels in recent months as Barbara’s health worsened.
Dr. Richard Gillin said that when Barbara was in hospice care, a former student he hadn’t seen in 20 years came to visit and brought pictures and mementoes from the first Kiplin Hall trip in 1998.
The Gillins were known among English majors for their house parties at Christmas and the end of the term. For Barbara, Dr. Richard Gillin said, the concept was normal, and even expected.
Julie Armstrong, class of 2015 and administrative assistant of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, described their annual end of the academic year event.
“There was no hospitality like Gillin hospitality. There was always an abundance of food and good conversation, and Barbara would make the booziest cake known to man and ply everyone with it. When the party wound down, she would pile paper plates with sandwiches, baked goods, and various other kinds of leftovers, and press them into all our hands; she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She mothered us all that way,” Armstrong said.
Senior Nick Blake, who attended the Kiplin Hall program, said of Barbara, “I remember when I was a shy, first-year student and the Gillins invited my parents and I into their home to talk about the trip and all the great things about it. She was one of the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met.”