Eulogy for Joe Gilchrist, by John Broughton | Teachers College Columbia University

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Eulogy for Joe Gilchrist, by John Broughton

Presented at the memorial service, 5.21.11, at First Corinthian Baptist Church, 1912 
Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.

Joseph Gilchrist – I came here today with good news: he has finally forgiven us for the constant mis-spellings of his surname.

As most of us Gilchristians know, Joe was the saviour and protector of the mother ship, that sanctuary of domestic faculty housing bliss on Morningside Drive, ‘Seth Low.’  This beautifully preserved building is a century old, but as fresh looking as Joe’s face early on a Monday morning.

Seth lowSeth Low was the Mayor of New York City and President of Columbia. When I googled his photographs, I was surprised to find he looked strangely like Alec Baldwin.  

However, Joe did not look like Alec Baldwin – although there was a time in midlife when the two of them, and me too, were putting on a little weight together.

My relationship with Joe was quite a formal one – the kind that I think Joe felt most comfortable with and that he thought worked best.  He was management, I was not. So I am surprised to find now how much affection I came to feel for Joe, and realise what a strange mixture of intimacy one can develop along with a deep respect and gratitude in that paradoxical workplace called “where I live.”

The hand on the helm of Seth Low was a firm hand. Joe had no compunction about reminding you of the rules. Once I borrowed a ladder from the basement and unknown to me, Joe had just installed those little video cameras that are the reason you can’t pick your nose any more in the laundry room.  He confronted me about the ladder in the lobby. At that time, the spy cameras were a new technology, so I had no idea how he knew. For months I slunk around self-consciously, thinking he must have a hotline to God.

It’s true, like the Brother from Another Planet, his eyes were everywhere. He seemed to notice everything. Whenever I mentioned a needed repair, he’d go “Uh-huh,” as if he’d already intuited it. Sometimes, it was just a “Huh!” of resignation, especially if it had to do with burst pipes. He knew how old everything was, and when it had passed its sell-by date -- for him, the whole building was a ticking time-bomb of obsolescence, or rather a mass of little ticking alarm clocks.

Joseph gilchristThere is a famous photograph of Joe by our security maestro and part-time artist, Bill Manning, which is oft hung in the halls of TC. When Bill asked him where he would like to have his picture taken, he insisted on standing next to the old boiler in the Seth Low basement. He kept warning us about that boiler. He understood how important hot water was for a bevy of staff, professors, and others after a long dirty day in the trenches. It was a great satisfaction to him when it was finally replaced.

He was in many ways the conscience of the building, keeping it real, keeping us all alive. He took this responsibility to heart.  He liked to know if some-thing was going wrong and he was genuinely grateful to be told about it. But usually he already knew, and so he was a great source of informal knowledge, which he was quite discreet about sharing. “If you know what I’m saying” was one of his favourite phrases.

Despite the tough, sometimes brusque exterior, Joe was a Southern gentleman.  He always addressed our daughters as “Miss Farallon” and “Lady Eleanor,” as if quoting from Stevie Nicks, or perhaps Crosby, Stills and Nash.

He was strangely old-fashioned. He was particularly loyal to his co-workers; for example, he fought for the late great James Brewer’s right to wear a straw boater on the job. He took great pride in assembling a kind of NBA team of resilient, trusty, and entertaining doormen, porters, and handymen. He looked for stability and longevity in his crew. He was not happy when fiscal cutbacks reduced his resources and impaired the safety of the building and the satisfaction of the tenants.

When it came to malfeasance, he was  ruthless – a veritable Orkin man. When I first came to TC in 1976, prior to the gentrification of  our hood, Seth Low resembled many other old New York City buildings; it was an HQ for nefarious activities and fly-by-night dealings. Joe was a young guy then who noticed and rooted out the corruption, diligently but cautiously. Confronted with his light sabre, the dark forces retreated. Although he was but a youth, he was promoted to super, or should I say super-hero. It was as though Robin had turned into Batman.

Batman had no kids, but Joe did. He was a fierce and fearless guardian of them, respecting their privacy, but appreciating enormously any inquiry as to their welfare. They say you can tell most about parents by how their children turn out. Thanks to Joe and Francine, Justin and Jordan are children no more, and I think we would all agree they certainly have made their parents proud. I remember Joe’s beaming face at Justin’s wedding. And again that delighted expression in the photograph used for the announcement of this ceremony, with Jordan on his shoulders -- that radiant grin of total satisfaction.

The only other smile that broad on Joe’s face that I recall was the evening we heard about Obama’s election.  That was a good night that one, when you could hear the celebrations on 125th St.  When James Brown passed, I went down to the Apollo in the evening to join the throng of admirers. It was a historic occasion.  I am reminded of that spirit today, with all of you here. Huh!

I had the pleasure of sitting on a College committee with Joe, and I can tell you he was a rapper. He had no reservations about speaking truth to power. And he had deep insights into security issues for the College that went way beyond economic practicalities, especially after 9-11. He defended his colleagues and particularly the union, and yet he was just as sensitive to the needs of staff and professors. He even understood the administration, although he envied their parking spots.

He was above all a defender of transparency and the right to know; he was a proponent of information and communication – the more the better and the faster the better.

It’s a wise man that keeps his own counsel, but Joseph was always open for a conversation, especially if it was brief and succinct. He was not a man for gossip, but he respected your right to know. He had a way of staring off into the distance over your left shoulder while he shared with you some frank assessment by deploying a wide range of euphemisms. At one point he explained to me quite elliptically the economic reasons why the elevators would likely not get replaced.

Now the soft sigh of new elevators is almost within earshot, and Joe is smiling to himself, somewhere on the other side, after that long last ride.

Published Monday, Jun. 6, 2011