This morning I received the shocking news that my good friend and colleague Gale Stokes died suddenly over the weekend. Gale was one of the two or three most important leaders of the field we used to call East European Studies and I cannot begin to calculate just how much I owe him for the many professional gifts he gave me throughout my career.
Gale began teaching at Rice University in 1968 and retired in 2005 after serving a stint as Dean of the School of Humanities and chair of the department of history. If I were to list his many important publications here, this post would be nothing but a litany of scholarship at a level I can never hope to achieve. I consider The Walls Came Tumbling Down one of the two best books on the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and still assign it to my students (they are reading it right now for Monday’s class). His Politics as Development: The Emergence of Political Parties in Nineteenth Century Serbia is still required reading for all of my graduate students.
But Gale’s contributions to my career were not his books, or his leadership of the Joint Committee on Eastern Europe (ACLS/SSRC), or his presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. Gale and I first met at the Junior Scholar’s Training Seminar put on by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (a seminar he co-founded). Over three magical days, Gale and several of his senior scholar colleagues helped a group of 15 or so of us to make that difficult transition from smartypants recent PhDs to early career scholar educators.
Two memories of Gale from that JSTS weekend that will forever stick with me. When I asked him a thorny question about my plans for my first book, he looked at me and chuckled. With the combination of serious and twinkling eyes that anyone who knew him will relate to, he said “Why ask me that? It’s your name that will be on the spine of the book, not mine. Do what you think is right.” Ok, I thought. If Gale Stokes says to follow my gut, I will. And I did. The other memory of that weekend, which is also vintage Gale, is after dinner, sitting in the common room with him, half a dozen other recent PhDs, a deck of cards, and some beer, being taught what he called, “the quintessential Balkan card game, Screw Your Neighbor.”
Over the next several years, Gale wrote half a dozen letters of recommendation for me, one of which was crucial to securing my first tenure track job at Texas Tech. He never complained (nor would he have) that I was not one of his students. Instead, he cheerfully offered advice on my letters of application, wrote excellent letters for me, and cheered me on throughout my peregrinations through the academic job market.
Each year at the conference we used to call AAASS, Gale and I would find a few minutes for a coffee, a beer, or even dinner — I well remember a fantastic evening eating and talking about everything under the sun at the bar at Legal Seafood in Boston.
Several years ago, I talked Gale into being one of the visiting scholars at an NEH Summer Seminar I ran here at Mason on the events of 1989. The 15 high school teachers in that seminar were completely captivated by him and his easy approach to helping them understand such a complex set of issues. While he was here, we conned him into being interviewed for our 1989 project. The result of those interviews are online here.
What he never knew was that he became briefly famous at the Center for History and New Media for a stunt one of our students pulled on him. That particular student was obsessed with the evil penguin from Wallace and Gromit. During the sound check for the interview, Misha said to Gale, “Dr. Stokes, I need to get a sample of your voice to make sure it’s coming through clearly. Say something random, like ‘penguin.'” Because he was Gale, he said “Penguin, penguin, penguin. Wait. Why penguin?” It became Misha’s goal to get every scholar we interviewed from that point forward to say penguin so he could create a video of famous historians saying “penguin.” Somehow, I think Gale would have loved that.
After he retired, Gale donated a large number of his printed primary sources from 1989 to the Mason library for no other reason than he knew that my students would need them and that Mason’s library was still starved for good research resources. That’s the kind of man he was.
I have tried my best to emulate him in my own career. I’ll never be as smart. I’ll never be as insightful. I’ll never be as cheerful. But I can try.