The snow began falling on the Lawn in the hours before dawn of Sunday, March 27. The voices of the students, strolling in twos and threes down the arcades, drifted up to my bedroom in the pavilion and then they grew faint. The snow fell all morning over the Grounds and through the afternoon. It fell silently on the trees that had been planted when the University was founded and in the years that have followed. I watched the snowflakes drifting through the branches of trees already in bloom—cherries, plums, Bradford pears, and star magnolias—and those about to flower. I saw it falling on the daffodils, hyacinths, periwinkles, and Virginia bluebells, and all the brilliant forsythias. When the snow finally stopped, the day suddenly turned dark and cold, with a wind that bites hard into the flesh and into the bone. I remember hearing that with a cold snap like this, flowers may not produce fruit. I was vaguely troubled by what might happen to the white flowering quinces and apricots in the back, whether they might have been damaged. That night, Thomas West Gilliam IV, fondly referred to as “Tommy Four” by family and friends, scaled the roof of the Physics Building with friends. They wanted to take in the night view of the Grounds. Slipping on ice, Tommy fell forty feet to the ground.
Tommy was nineteen, soon to finish his first year in the College. He came from a large and close-knit family that was dispersed around the world. He was born in Texas, but had traversed the world with his parents. He lived in Australia (where to make the business of ethnic nomenclature more efficient, young Tommy once referred to himself as “Australian-American”); and for most of his teenage years, he lived in Dublin. His classmates at U.Va. called him “the guy from Ireland.”
Tommy’s mother, Vicki Gilliam, said that he fretted sometimes about leaving his friends behind in Dublin and having to make new friends at U.Va., something entirely understandable: “adjustments,” and “fitting-in” are the cultural tropes of our children. But because he had been exposed from early on to the world beyond our borders, and loved the friends he made all over the world, he had a terrific advantage. It gave him an innate ability to empathize with others, to understand their “origins”—not merely in an ethnic and geographic sense, but in the sense of what Aristotle meant by the word nous, the intellectual origins and inclinations and sensibilities that guide human trajectories—to arrive finally at their mind’s center.
In ENWR 1510—an argumentative writing class that focused on issues like aid to Africa, the trans-Atlantic drug trade and human trafficking—Tommy was an active participant, a tenacious debater with a steel-trap mind, the kind that professors love to have, and come to rely on, in class. Tommy knew more than other students, able to imagine and extrapolate on the basis of living abroad; and Tommy’s presence, according to his teacher James Patterson, provided one of the “incentives for the students for attending class.” (But it still did not prevent Tommy from leaving the class early one day to attend the U.Va.-Duke basketball game—whereupon the “Duke game” became a class joke for absences.)
Likewise, he was a good debater in the discussion section that Art Espey led in Introduction to International Relations. Had he been able to finish the next three years, he would most likely have majored in Foreign Affairs, like his uncle, Robert (College ’91). Robert lives in Beirut, Lebanon. In French class, his teacher recalled Tommy’s essay, written with remarkable fluency, about his dream of spending Christmas in the French Alps, and of skiing during the day and playing games and watching classic holiday films in the evening. In that class, as in others, Tommy’s teachers recalled his lilting Irish brogue.
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, said that poetry creates an order “where we can at least grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.” All the things that surrounded Heaney as the eldest child in a large family in rural County Derry—rain in the trees, mice in the ceiling, a steam locomotive rumbling along the railway line one field back from his house, as he put it—formed the core of who he was, as our own surroundings form the core of who we are. He likened the distance between our human core and the adult world we inhabit to the drinking water that stood in a bucket in the scullery of his house: “every time a passing train made the earth quake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.”
I met Tom Gilliam III (College ’85, Darden ’90) and Vicki on Tuesday after Tommy’s accident. Vicki had flown in from Dublin that afternoon, and they were huddled with a few students in Pavilion V. Tom had majored in English before he went on to Darden, and like Tommy later on, he knew every corner of the Grounds intimately, and he reveled in sharing with his son all his affections for the College. On that Tuesday, however, Tom wasn’t focused on himself or even Tommy. He was focused on the students in the room; they had been with Tommy when he fell to his death, or else saw him in his last hour. They are in no way responsible for this accident, he said, and they must not let it, cruel and inexplicable as it is, compromise the innocence and joys of their days on the Grounds. As the students sobbed, Tom and Vicki comforted them; and in their compassion for other people’s children, they seemed to have forgotten, if momentarily, the immensity of the catastrophe that had just befallen them.
Tommy’s memorial service was unusual for one whose life was cut so short, and it overflowed with hundreds of people from everywhere in the world. They remembered a student on the cusp of manhood—handsome, radiant, intelligent, the kind that parents wish their daughters would marry. Tommy’s aunt Connally (College ’87, Curry ’90) was there, and I met Tommy’s uncle from Beirut who likes the College magazine that is delivered to his doorstep, and Tommy’s grandfather who lives in Charlottesville, and who extended his gratitude for President Sullivan’s kind words about Tommy.
I never taught Tommy, I never met him. But I have some sense of what he must have “stored up” as he grew, the influences of family, friends and places that formed his core—and the gentle ripples from and around it. It is not difficult to imagine the broadening paths of the marvelous life he would have had, and the impact he would have made on those around him. I wish we had him for another three years.
When Seamus Heaney received his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, he invoked the other great Irish poet who preceded him in Stockholm. In “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” William Butler Yeats spoke of the impact that his friends, like Augusta Gregory and John Synge, had had on modern Irish history and himself:
You that would judge me do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.
The flowering quince in my backyard was damaged by the ice. And in Final Exercises three years from now, Tommy’s voice won’t mix in the roar that will burst into the air with hundreds of balloons. Yet this is where the glory of the University still begins and ends. Our glory was that we had Tommy—forever radiant and innocent in our mind’s eye—and his large and boisterous family as our friends.