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Touching Basses: The Extraordinary Lives of Richard T. Gill



What happens when you put a prizewinning pugilist, an economist, a world-renowned opera singer, a Harvard House master and a television personality in the same room?

Richard T. Gill '48 stands alone.

A former Economics 1 professor who led Leverett for 16 years as senior tutor and then master, Gill has written books with Professors Nathan Glazer and Stephan Thernstrom, has sung with all Three Tenors and Beverly Sills, earned The Atlantic Monthly's short story prize and won a few boxing matches along the way. This all began not long after he entered Harvard College--at age 16.

Gill's sister says her brother has always been "phenomenal."

And his wife cannot help but chuckle when she looks back on her "very fascinating, if at times hair-raising" life alongside her husband of 48 years.

Longtime Harvard administrator Fred L. Glimp '50 says Gill is "as close to a Renaissance man as I've ever met," calling his former colleague "the kind of a guy that--if he weren't so nice and so kind and impressive in a human way--everybody would hate him because he's so dog-gone good at almost anything he puts his hand to."

With Honors

The Long Branch, N.J. native was a product of the Depression, the youngest of three children.

His father Thomas G. Gill worked for a billboard advertising firm hit hard by the economic crisis of the 1930s; Richard lived what he called a "tight, but very happy childhood," drawn to vocal performance by his mother Myrtle, a music teacher.

Gill met his future wife Elizabeth at a community concert when they were both 15. Their relationship was "stormy off and on," Elizabeth Gill says, "but ultimately it was on."

Placing second out of more than 100,000 students in a national American Legion Oratorical Contest in high school, Richard Gill came to Harvard in 1944 and led the Debate Council as its president, winning the College's Coolidge debate prize and delivering the Class Oration senior year.

A congenial man to interview, Gill was apparently quite the fighter--both behind the podium and in the ring--as an undergraduate.

After Gill accidentally broke someone's nose in boxing class, the coach of the varsity boxing team approached Gill and encouraged him to fight for Harvard.

Gill also managed to find a niche as a soloist in the Glee Club, the editor of the Student Progressive, the head of the Liberal Union and a member of Phi Beta Kappa junior year.

"I was busy," Gill acknowledges.

Called away from Cambridge after sophomore year, Gill spent time in the army stationed in Japan, and won the regimental boxing championship, in the middleweight division.

Once back in the Square, Gill graduated summa cum laude in economics, garnering the Palfrey Exhibition (awarded to the most distinguished graduating scholarship student) and a Henry Fellowship to study philosophy and psychology at Jesus College in England.

And though he later earned a Fulbright Fellowship for further study, Gill returned to the States after only a year abroad when his father became ill.

Mastering Harvard

At age 21, Gill became an assistant dean of the College, and claims to be the youngest "baby dean" in Harvard College history.

Awarded his Ph.D. in economics in 1956, Gill directed the largest course at the College, known now as Social Analysis 10: "Principles of Economics."

And by 1963, after an eight-year stint as senior tutor, Gill and his wife Elizabeth were moving into the master's residence at Leverett House.

Being administrators during the days of student protests was challenging, the Gills admit.

When strangers threw rocks through the windows of the Gill home and nearly injured their children, Elizabeth Gill was not sure if the protests were directed at her advocacy of increased diversity in Cambridge's public school teaching staff--or at her husband's "neanderthal" ideologies.

"It turns out they were my enemies," she sighs.

Her husband's commitment to freedom of speech was unpopular in the late '60s, Gill says.

"I was very much a law-and-order type," Richard Gill notes.

Gill says one of his Leverett students had interned for President Lyndon B. Johnson, and there was a good chance LBJ would agree to speak at the House senior dinner. ("Not even [famed Eliot House Master] John [H.] Finley ['25] could've topped that," Gill laughs.)

Ultimately, Johnson declined the offer--and Gill, who faced "the sharpest of criticisms" from some Faculty members for extending an invitation to the commander-in-chief during the Vietnam War, concedes that the president's arrival "would have caused a riot."

The Making of a Star

At the same time protesting at Harvard had begun to take center stage, Gill found his way to the spotlight.

A heavy smoker for many years, Gill decided to quit in favor of private voice lessons, where he practiced furiously.

In May of 1967, Gill appeared as the Count in the Leverett House Opera's The Marriage of Figaro. The production--"the most charming I have ever been a part of," Gill beams--was organized by the student-directoral team of John Lithgow '67 and John C. Adams '69.

The Crimson review of Figaro was quite positive.

"Master Richard Gill, who plays the Count, would be well worth hearing by himself. His voice is as majestic as his hearing; he is at once dramatic and agile," the student reviewer wrote. "If his tone quality were only a little more variable, if he could sound sweet and smooth when necessary, he would be unassailable."

Spending a year on sabbatical in England, Gill sang regularly--away from the "fear of failure in front of my Harvard colleagues"--and was encouraged to perform professionally.

By 1971, he could not resist auditioning for the New York City Opera--just to see how good he was.

He was deemed extremely good--and eventually accepted a trial position as a basso with the Manhattan opera company in 1971.

The contract paid $75 a night, and Gill was guaranteed a grand total of two performances.

It was "risky" to say the least, but Gill says he and his wife agreed that they "had to just go for it."

Armed with a sizable advance on a large economics textbook Gill was commissioned to complete, the couple announced their departure to nonplussed Dean of the Faculty John T. Dunlop in the spring.

Their three sons were supportive of the career change, and their youngest transferred high schools when the Gills moved to Allendale, N.J.

"We were sort of oblivious to the real risks he took," says son Peter S. Gill '78, who was unfazed upon noticing that his sixth-grade anthology of short stories contained works by James Thurber, Ogden Nash and Richard Gill. "We always thought this was typical for him."

"If I failed, there was no way to return to Harvard," says Richard Gill, noting he would have opted to teach in "somewhere like Honolulu or Wyoming" if he bombed in New York. "Harvard is no place to come after you stub your toe violently."

Gill's toe did just fine.

Earning the rare distinction of moving from the New York City Opera to the Metropolitan Opera by virtue of the Met's invitation, Gill performed as a principal artist from day one.

The former Harvard House master became a world-class opera singer overnight, travelling from Pittsburgh to Amsterdam to Carcacas in a 14-year career spanning dozens of operas. His performance stirred Variety magazine to use the words "Richard T. Gill" and "tour de theatre" in the same sentence.

In the mid '80s, Gill added another section to his resume. Combining the scholarship of his Harvard days with the glamour of the opera, Gill found a home in the television studio, helping to create ECONOMICS U$A, a 28-program public broadcasting television series for which he served as an on-air analyst.

The Encore Academic

By 1992, Gill had written several economic textbooks, as well as a sociological work entitled Our Changing Population with Professor of Education and Social Structure Emeritus Nathan Glazer and Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom. His latest work, Posterity Lost: Progress, Ideology and the Decline of the American Family, was published last year.

Gill will discuss his book in one of the symposia planned for the class of 1948 on Wednesday.

But first, Gill will perform with the Boston Pops as their featured vocalist tomorrow evening.

"He's Mr. Eclectic," son Peter says.

When asked to explain his wild versatility, Richard Gill jokes that one must have "a certain limited intelligence to try so many things."

Originally considering life as a lawyer, after serving a year in the Army as a teenager, "I had a reconsideration of my lifelong goals," Gill says. "I can only applaud this decision in retrospect."

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