My connection with him was through our local of the Virginia Education Association, but that connection deepened when I needed help with a thorny issue. He solved it for me by giving me step by step instructions, which I followed to the letter. Later, it was our casual conversations that created an interesting bond.
Here is a story he told me. He was a doctoral student at University of Chicago, married and had really done everything necessary for his advisor to sign the papers conferring his degree. But William McNeill had a good thing going with this energetic student and he was loathe to let him go. Finally, in frustration, he marched into McNeill's office and laid it out for him: I'm married and my wife has been supporting us while I go to graduate school. She wants to start a family and it's time for me to do my share. You are going to graduate me and I'm going to work to support my family. He told me that McNeill grudgingly went along with things and that was how he finally got his doctorate.
It was a story that resonated. During my very brief time at U of C, I had encountered a whole lot of permanent doctoral students who were living in poverty and doing the work of their masters. I admired this man for asserting himself and being able to walk out of there with the thing he'd come for.
What I came to realize was that it was a metaphor for all that he did for the teachers who were encountering problems with their own masters, as it were. He insisted that we assert ourselves because he knew, first hand, that the only way to gain the respect of those who take advantage of others is to stand up and say "that's enough."
During my time serving on the district board, I had occasion to just talk about a lot of things with this remarkable man. He was irascible and occasionally utterly obnoxious, but I "got" him, so for me it was always a delight to spar with him. It was hard, though, because I usually agreed with him in principle.
It was also the dawning of email and a bunch of friends and I were having some fun 'writing' some bits and passing them along to the next person to add on to. In one of those, I'd written something that caused one of the others to say, "Syster Synne should be writing potboilers." It developed into a bet that I could do it. I came up with a plot and started writing.
I was telling Gary about it and lamenting that I had contrived something in order to inject the obligatory steamy sex, but that it just didn't fit, so I was stalled. "What's the story about?" he wanted to know. So I gave him the bare outline of what I had in mind - it was historical and involved unions, took place during the Depression, and was set in Chicago. "Forget romance!" he declared. "This should be a legitimate book! It's good!"
Sadly, I never got that thing unblocked, although thanks to another history professor, I stumbled on some information that has allowed me to shift the thing a bit. I'm still researching it. Gary would like that it involves the Wobblies.
In the last several years, he has not been well and so his death was expected - not immediately, but it was imminent. I know it has been a rough road for his beloved wife, Elaine. But she has borne it with grace and been as loving and supportive as he always was with her. They really were a love match from the first date!
I wish I had been able to get that book to a point where he could have read it and given me guidance. Such was not to be, but if I ever manage to finish it and if it ever manages to find it's way into print, you can bet it will be dedicated to him.