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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar's College Historian

William Gifford

William Wallace Gifford devoted much of his time to students who were literally no longer his. A professor of English at Vassar College for over forty years, from 1955 to 1996, he maintained a close correspondence with some graduates that  lasted even longer. Though years past graduation and advancing in literary careers of their own, many of his students continued to send their drafts back to Gifford for his critical review. “When I think I see a way to be helpful, I take a great deal of time with this,” he later wrote. “It seems to me a necessary extension of the teaching which we do here.”

Gifford’s holistic approach to teaching developed through the course of his own education. Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on November 15, 1928, the only child of Ralph Staples Gifford and Jane (Wheelan) Gifford, he received his BA from Swarthmore College in 1950 and his MA and PhD from the University of California at Berkeley (1952, 1955), where he held a University Fellowship. 

Although his graduate research primarily concerned the social and political opinions of John Donne, Bill studied a wide variety of world literatures throughout his life. While at Swarthmore, Bill worked summers at a place called the Dew Drop Inn, where one day he saw a pretty girl who was in the Class of 1949. The second time he saw her, he recalled, she “wore this dress, very low-cut in the back,” into which he dropped a bit ice. He and Alice Heyroth were married in 1950, and five years later the couple moved to Poughkeepsie, where Bill had an appointment as an assistant professor at Vassar College. Hired over the phone, “sight unseen,” by the department chair, the legendary professor Helen Lockwood ‘12, Gifford embarked on his Vassar journey, an unproven teacher.  

Bill packed his family into their small Plymouth and, pulling a homemade trailer, started on the cross-country journey from Berkeley to Poughkeepsie. The trailer broke down in Nebraska, and while hardly a harbinger of things to come, gave him time to think about what exactly he had gotten himself into. “I was twenty-six and extremely inexperienced,” he recalled thirty-six years later. “But somewhere in my bags on the trailer I had my one-year contract. From time to time as we drove I asked myself, how does anyone teach?” 

Although at first he regarded the “course reports” given to him by Professor Lockwood  “as if they were the words of God”, they quickly “seemed a little glib” and did not tell him how to teach. Gifford concluded, after some of the introspective deliberation that became his trademark, that “proper teaching [is] more like a good conversation.” This revelation became the mantra on which his classes were based. For forty years he led good conversations, dialogues that continued well past the bounds of his class periods or even his students’ time at Vassar. 

Bill Gifford left his mark on the Vassar community in several ways. Over the span of four decades, he served on the Task Force on Teaching, the Committee on Breadth in Curriculum, the Vassar QuarterlyAdvisory Committee, and the Vassar Journalism Forum. He also proposed and helped organize lectures and campus-wide events, such as the “Medieval Day” in 1985, which featured programming by the English and Medieval & Renaissance Studies departments to commemorate the 500thanniversary of the death of Richard III. Gifford taught several courses during his tenure at Vassar, but he was most well-known for his courses on Shakespeare and his Senior Composition seminar.  Gifford saw the importance of bringing well-known writers to campus to lecture and conduct workshops with students, a practice ultimately secured by the English department’s annual “Gifford Lecture” for writers in residence, given to the college in 1997 by a group of his past students. 

His students, who sometimes referred to him as “the Gif,” were taken by his non-traditional teaching style. During particularly sleepy lecture periods, he would balance a blackboard eraser on top of his head—to see who would notice, and to cajole his students to awaken. Once, frustrated that his students were not paying adequate attention, Gifford climbed on top of a table and reprimanded them in the persona of his “evil twin.” When he wasn’t acting the villain, he was gentle and genuine, offering meaningful individual encouragement. In a letter home, one student wrote, “Never, never have I taken myself so seriously as a writer—nor had myself taken so seriously.” In response to her distrust of the confessional style, Gifford had advised her that “confessional writing is the hardest, but true writing comes from a heart with experiences to share. . . . I wish he had a son I could marry.”

Bill and Alice at Commencement in 1996

Gifford did, in fact, have a son, Daniel, and a daughter, Caroline. The family often spent their summers together at a cottage in Craigville, on Cape Cod. Alice and Bill were also passionate about music, and subscribers to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. They were also frequent travelers, exploring several cities in Mexico, Germany, Greece, and England, among others. Throughout these travels, Bill continued to write—essays on Donne and other authors, as well as manuscripts of his own novels, none of which, apparently, were ever submitted for publication.

Bill Gifford was perhaps most prolific in his correspondence with former students. Vassar’s Special Collections Library contains folders full of his letters to dozens of graduates over the years—handwritten, composed on a typewriter, and printed from a word processer, as the years progressed. He continues to offer his criticism of students’ work long after they left Poughkeepsie. His commentary, humble and self-effacing (he called himself a “notorious un-poet”), could be brutally honest; he was never afraid to point out a piece’s shortcomings. One of his students, Roberta Price ’68, later wrote that Gifford was “the best mentor and reader you could have; his comments combined empathy, intuition, perception, attention to detail, and vast literary knowledge.” Gifford helped to mentor a generation of accomplished writers, including the poet Elizabeth Spires ‘74 and the journalist Lucinda Franks ‘68. 

Throughout his long career, Professor Gifford largely avoided the limelight. His fiction didn’t appear in public and his scholarly work rarely appeared. He excelled, rather, as a lifelong mentor of others—both within and beyond the classroom. “I suppose there is something seductive about money and excitement,” he once wrote in a letter to Spires, “I wouldn’t know.”  “He was a teacher,” remembered Lucinda Franks “able to transform mediocrity into excellence.” An English department colleague, however, recalled meeting Dame Helen Gardner, the Merton Professor of English Literature in the University of Oxford and a specialist in the works of John Donne and T. S. Eliot, who, on learning he was from Vassar, asked after that “brilliant Mr. Gifford,” who really ought to send along more of his work.

William Gifford died August 21, 2015, two years after the passing of his wife Alice. A throng of pupils joined his memorial service at the Chapel the following  December in remembrance of the man who guided them into and through their life’s work. One student read from Bill’s letters to students, another read Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death,” another shared a remembrance, and colleague, the poet Eamon Grennan, read from John Milton’s “Lycidas.” Those who could not attend the ceremony later congregated online, putting together a robust Facebook page, “In Memory of Prof. Bill Gifford, Vassar College.” Former students shared their favorite stories, reminders of the light that he brought to his pupils’ lives, immortal and truly ineffable. 

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Lucinda Franks ’68 “Remembering Bill Gifford,” Vassar, The Alumnae/i Quarterly, Vol. III, Issue 3, Fall 2015.

William Gifford, “Novitiate in the English Department: What I saw when I arrived at Vassar,” Vassar Quarterly,Vol. LXXVII, No. 2, March 1991.

Gifford biographical file, Vassar College Special Collections Library

WW-2, 2019