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charcoal portrait done of Ernie Gallo

Ernest Gallo

Ernie Gallo arrived at UMass in 1965. Whether or not he and the other extraordinary new faculty realized it, they would soon transform an admirable state university into a world center for teaching and research. Every student took a great books course so that the entire campus recognized Odysseus and Oedipus, Milton’s Satan and Don Quixote. Bartlett Hall was quite new and, as Wordsworth said at the idealistic start of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”  To hone instructional skills, faculty often presented papers to each other after classes finished or led discussions, some in Arthur Kinney’s apartment. The reservoir of authoritative opinion energized those starting their careers and those nearing the end of them.

Ernie easily won the respect and friendship of these colleagues. In some ways, he resembled them. His linguistic ability included mastery of Latin, both classical and medieval, Old French, German and mathematics. His published studies of thirteenth-century literary theorists Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Matthew of Vendome supplied up-to-date analyses useful to his many colleagues interested in how words may be patterned for maximum effect. 

Yet despite this general similarity, Ernie developed unique skills. An early adept on the computer, he scheduled our classes as Associate Chair and, with even more pleasure, pursued arcane interests such as cryptography. (He seemed to know about Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park Enigma project before anyone else.) He conquered archery and, with equal precision, aimed a fine telescope at the night sky. These scientific interests sharpened his critical talents. Ever mindful of pretention (or worse, ignorance), he skewered theorists who used convoluted language to conceal a lack of understanding. Here his tongue-in-cheek model was Alan Sokal, a physics professor who had published a meaningless collection of post-modern cultural clichés to demonstrate the flimsiness of much abstract analysis. Ernie’s own fey short essays continued the tradition of exposing vapidity.

Lest these accomplishments seem rigidly academic, we must recall how Ernie tolerated a wide range of “science.” He appreciated J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time, a once famous blend of physics and spiritualism. He reveled in Old Time Radio shows from the 1940s that dramatized H. G. Wells and Ray Bradbury with the same aural appeal that made Fibber McGee so entertaining. His course in Science Fiction enthralled many students. Currently he is best known as the innovative instructor of Games Thinkers Play, a challenging opportunity for inquiring students who wish to use logic and philosophy to explicate literature. No wonder Ernie was twice nominated for the Distinguished Teaching Award.

Literary fads come and go; usually, their departure signifies little. But when an enthusiastic instructor like Ernie leaves, we should preserve his memory.    

Written by Professor Jim Freeman