Life Stories

Life Stories: Darryl Gless left legacy of caring, excellence

CorrespondentJuly 13, 2014 

Darryl Gless, a UNC professor, died in June. His unborn daughter is due this month.

COURTESY OF FRIEDERIKE SEEGER

  • Darryl James Gless

    Born: Dec. 4, 1945, in Schuyler, Neb.

    Family: Born one of three boys, he is married twice before wedding Friederike Seeger in 2012.

    Education: Graduates from the University of Nebraska with an English degree in 1968, winning a Rhodes Scholarship. Earns doctorate from Princeton University in 1975 with focus on Renaissance literature.

    Career: Teaches at the University of Virginia before joining the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is awarded the Roy C. Moose Distinguished Professorship in Renaissance Studies in 2009, also serving as chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature and Senior Associate Dean for Arts & Humanities during his tenure. He wins a University Tanner Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1983 and the Board of Governors’ Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2013. Helps develop the First-Year Seminars at UNC and the Robertson Scholars program in which students study at both UNC and Duke University.

    Dies: June 10

While pregnant, Friederike Seeger recorded video of her husband, Darryl Gless, talking.

Gless talked about his childhood in Nebraska, the death of his father, the unsettling business of having a personal servant as a Rhodes Scholar, and how he thought he would enjoy the contraptions that accompany having a baby – the strollers, swings and other mysterious gadgets.

He read to his unborn daughter, whom he called “miraculous,” the German children’s book Seeger loved as a child, and said how lucky their daughter would be to have Seeger as her mother.

Gless, a professor of Renaissance literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, had been fighting cancer during the couple’s entire relationship. When they decided to pursue parenthood, they knew Gless would not be around to raise the child, whom they had already named Leni, into adulthood. But they hoped he would be there for her birth, and for years to follow. Until two weeks before he died, it seemed he would be.

Gless, 68, died in June after a failed bone marrow transplant. He was awaiting a second transplant, but with his immune system eradicated in anticipation of the donor marrow, he fell ill with just a few weeks to go.

Though he was not able to hold his daughter in his arms, he supported many students through their studies during his tenure at UNC. Numerous students say Gless’ caring nature, limitless support and brilliance as a professor had profound effects on their lives well beyond their degrees.

‘A real good eye’

Gless was born and raised in Nebraska, the son of jewelers. When he became a Rhodes Scholar (one of his classmates at the University of Oxford was Bill Clinton), the humble kid from the Midwest had a hard time dealing with the classism ingrained in British culture. Colleagues say that sense of humility never left him.

“He had a real good eye for the less flashy smart kid,” said Mary Floyd-Wilson, professor of English literature at UNC and also a former student of Gless. “He made everybody feel that they were the smartest person in the room.”

Though he had taught the plays of William Shakespeare countless times, Gless reread them before each course – a practice that astounded colleagues.

“He represented, I think, a Renaissance figure in the very best sense. He embodied a love for learning,” said Bill Ferris, professor of history at UNC.

Students noted the subtle but meaningful ways he showed he cared. Maria Devlin, now a doctoral student at Harvard University, recalled how he offered rides, pulled out chairs in restaurants and encouraged the “poor students” to order extra food so they could have leftovers. He always made time, assisting with applications and bibliographies, offering guidance for career paths.

At a time when the humanities were constantly targeted for budget cuts, Gless was a steadfast advocate for his discipline.

“It wasn’t rhetoric for him. He really believed that the study of literature and the study of the humanities was crucial to our development, our culture, our moral development as humans,” Floyd-Wilson said.

Happy final years

Gless did not hide his condition from his students, and even called upon them to consider platelet and blood donation. The last year of his life, before the marrow transplant, he received platelet transfusions two or three times a week.

Gless had chemotherapy off and on for years and had to be extraordinarily protective of his immune system. He told students to not attend class if at all ill. Devlin remembers how upset she was when coming down with the sniffles – the idea of missing one of his classes was agonizing.

Loved ones say Gless had never been so happy in his life as he was the last decade, the years he spent with Seeger, 36.

Gless was first diagnosed with a bone marrow cancer in 2004, and met Seeger, director of Burch Programs and honors study abroad at UNC-Chapel Hill, the following year. In that time they traveled extensively, visiting South Africa and Morocco as well as their favorite haunts in England and Germany. Gless handled the treatments remarkably well, but last winter it became clear he needed a marrow transplant.

By then Seeger was pregnant. They used in vitro fertilization for conception because Gless had already undergone years of chemotherapy. Among his hopes for his daughter, whom he planned to spoil just a little, was peace.

“I hope that the world calms down,” he said.

With Leni due on July 31, Seeger is hoping the baby will look like her father.

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