University News

Gleason leaves legacy of wisdom, trail of paint

Retired history professor remembered for landmark scholarship, conversational wit

News Editor
Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Updated Jan. 21 at 10:45 a.m. 

Abbott “Tom” Gleason, professor emeritus of history and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs faculty member, is remembered by friends and colleagues as a man of many talents who touched the lives of countless colleagues and students. The definition of well-rounded, Gleason took interest in an eclectic mix of subjects, studying the Cold War as well as baseball, music and art.

Gleason spent nearly four decades at the University from 1968 to 2005, promoting Slavic studies and teaching about the Cold War, Russian national identity and American affairs. He also served as chair of the Department of History and director of the Watson Institute.

From 1980 to 1982, Gleason doubled as Brown professor and director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Between 1995 and 1996, he also served as the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, wrote Cynthia Brokaw, professor and chair of the Department of History, in an email to The Herald.

After retiring from Brown in 2005 for health-related reasons, Gleason pursued other ambitions in earnest, painting prolifically and holding numerous art exhibitions, Omer Bartov, professor of history and German studies, wrote in an email to The Herald.

A legacy in Russian studies

Many historians of modern Russia agree that Gleason’s scholarship has made an indelible mark on the field.

“He had remarkable range, writing with equal ability and skill about the 19th century and the 20th century, intellectual trends and culture, high politics and art,” wrote Ethan Pollock, director of undergraduate studies for the history department and associate professor of Slavic studies. Pollock called Gleason’s work “insightful, caring, convincing and witty.”

Though Gleason’s research originally centered on 19th-century history, his experience at the Wilson Center increased his interest in the Soviet period and foreign policy during the Cold War, wrote Gordon Wood, professor emeritus of history, in an email to The Herald.

Gleason published and edited many works. Some of his most groundbreaking Soviet books are “Nineteen Eighty-Four: George Orwell and Our Future,” “Nikita Khrushchev,” and “Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War.” In his book on totalitarianism he examines the similarities among 20th-century dictatorships fueled by seemingly disparate ideologies.

In 2010, he published “A Liberal Education,” a memoir touching on his generation, work, passions and experience with Parkinson’s disease.

“A true Renaissance scholar”

“Gleason was one of the great faculty members of Brown of the last half century,” wrote Kenneth Sacks, professor of history, in an email to The Herald.

Gleason could not only boast deep expertise in Russian history, but also “talk with authority on most sports,” especially any trivia involving the Boston Red Sox, Sacks wrote. Gleason also loved music, particularly classical music and jazz, even naming his dog for Louis Armstrong, Sacks wrote, deeming Gleason “a true Renaissance scholar.”

Gleason’s broad interests made him an interesting lecturer and engaging conversationalist. “He was one of the most articulate and learned individuals I had ever met,” Wood wrote.

Gleason was also known for his “unique kind of wry humor,” Bartov wrote. “What I admired most about him was that he consistently displayed utter sincerity without a hint of naivete.”

“He was a connoisseur of East European and Russian jokes, and few people could present these jokes with more effect than Tom,” wrote Mary Gluck, professor of history and Judaic studies, in an email to The Herald.

A conversation Gleason and Wood had at the University Club in 1969 convinced Wood to move from Michigan to teach at Brown. “I said to myself, if he was typical of the Brown faculty, there is where I want to be.”

Passion for paint

After Gleason retired, he picked up painting, a hobby in which he had dabbled as a graduate school student, Wood wrote. Gleason painted everything from European landscapes to bright abstract shapes.

Gleason told The Herald in 2014 that he wasn’t ready to retire in 2005. “I sometimes miss it — the classroom and the students — but I try to keep it out of mind. Painting is all I try to concern myself with now,” he said. “Everything else has deteriorated, but my painting is the best it has been.”

Gleason had his own art studio and continued to paint “ever more abstractly, even while increasingly debilitated by Parkinson’s disease,” Sacks wrote.

In 2013, the Watson Institute exhibited Gleason’s paintings spanning through his whole career. The Department of History has purchased two of Gleason’s paintings to hang in Peter Green House, Brokaw wrote.  

Gleason died at 77 years old Dec. 25, President Christina Paxson P’19 announced in a campus-wide email. He died from complications with Parkinson’s disease, the Washington Post reported. A University memorial service will be held Jan. 30 at 1:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church of Providence.


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