Chester Gillis – Dean, Georgetown College Remembers Dr. Alatis

Georgetown University Remembrances – April 27th, 2015

Chester Gillis – Dean, Georgetown College

I first met Dean Alatis when I was a young professor – an assistant professor, un-tenured, and assigned to be a member of the Exectuive Council of the School of Languages and Linguistics. I learned a great deal from Jim.  Ironically I share a similar position today, but I think I learned how to run a meeting, first of all, from him. Many of you will remember those meetings.  I remember them very well.

He would always ask, when a new class was being introduced – “I have 3 questions.”  If you’ve been on this committee, you’ll remember.

“Does this person have the competence to do this course?”

And everyone around the table said, ‘Yes, we just hired this person from Harvard.” (Laughter) “And the person does this kind of language for the last 10 years.”

“OK.  Will this take any students away from other courses that we’re offering?”

“No, this is actually an addition to the curriculum that will draw new students.”


And lastly, a question I have learned is so important…

“Will this cost anything?” (Laughter) ”What will the cost of this course be, then?”

No, it’s part of the curriculum, it’s part of the salary — it’s perfect.”

“I approve this course. “ (laughter)

Many of you would remember if you were on that committee. And it was a routine, and there were many other routines that Jim had. You knew, when you went in the room, you knew who the Dean was.

From that experience, not only how to lead a meeting, with faculty, but also a devotion to languages and linguistics at Georgetown. I recognized how special this place is because we occupied THIS space in the American landscape of higher education. And we do it, I think, better than anyone in the country.

I saw the devotion of this Dean, I saw the devotion of Faculty, as well—this commitment to languages and linguistics. And this unique niche that we have occupied, where students come to us to study languages and cultures. I always distinguish between people who have a job, and people who have a vocation. Jim Alatis had a vocation. Being a faculty member and being at Georgetown University was not a job. Oh, he got a paycheck, like all of us, but it was his life! It was, a vocation. He was completely devoted to the place, and completely enwound with Georgetown and its mission. Such that, I remember well, Penny, his retirement party.

(It was his Retirement party, finally, at 85 years OLD, twenty years later than the typical retirement age of most of his contemporaries!)

It was a Retirement Party, by the way, and I sat next to Jim. And after I gave a speech and after we had lunch together, and many other speeches, I said to Jim, “What would you like to do now?” (Heh), and he said, “I’d like to teach Modern Greek.”

And I said, “Jim, it’s a retirement party! How about fishing, how about travel, how about golf?” And he said, “No, I just want to keep doing what I’ve been doing my whole life.”

It was his complete identity. And his complete identification with Georgetown. His devotion to languages and linguistics, and Georgetown, has made us who we are.

He put us on the map, and all of you know that.

Such that, he even negotiated a deal, at the very end with me, saying, “If I leave, this job, Chet, you will promise me that we will still have Modern Greek in the curriculum. Because we are one of the few schools in the country to teach Modern Greek, and this needs to be maintained.”

And I said, “Indeed, it will, Jim,” and indeed, it is, along with many other uncommonly-taught languages.

All of that is because of his leadership, and the continuation of that legacy, with the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, who have carried on the tradition that Jim established.

The last distinction I make, sometimes, is between people who work AT an institution — it may even be, working at Georgetown, where your plaque is here, but it could be at Standford, it could be at Duke, it could be at Brown, it could be at Maryland, it happens to be here.

We don’t have very many like that, thankfully. But we have many, like Jim, who work FOR Georgetown.

He did not work AT Georgetown. He worked FOR Georgetown, day and night, heart and soul. So this place would be what it is today, and what it will be in the future.  We thank you for sharing with us (to his family) and we know that he will rest in peace, because he has been a good soul.

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