Thomas Edward Gilmer

H-SC President, 1960-1963Thomas Edward Gilmer

A native of Virginia's far-southwestern Pulaski County, Thomas E. Gilmer 1923 entered Hampden-Sydney in 1919, the year his second-remove predecessor assumed office. He was of deeply religious background and lifelong active commitment, yet he excelled chiefly in his scientific studies; and his quiet, business-like demeanor precluded neither fun (a picture in the 1923 year-book shows him, grinning broadly, ensconced in a trash-can) nor popularity among his fraternity brothers. After graduation as third-honor man and marriage to his chemistry professor's daughter, he taught in a military school; then he did graduate work at the University of Virginia before returning to Hampden-Sydney in 1927 to teach mathematics. When the revered Dr. J.H.C. Bagby died in 1934, Gilmer moved over to Physics, and took a Ph.D. in that subject from the University of Virginia in 1937. He became an archetypal Hampden-Sydney professor: tough but fair, demanding but patient, and, though unforgiving in his grade-book, one of the kindest men anyone ever knew. Legendary for his showmanlike classroom and laboratory demonstrations, he also kept up with new developments, especially in nuclear and radiation physics, by attending summer courses under Atomic Energy Commission grants; and he was prominent in Civil Defense work. But he was a choice of desperation as President and virtually had to be dragged into office. Long experience had given him clear ideas about certain problems and their solutions: he was much concerned about admissions, and secured a full-time Admissions Director. But his deep sense of duty was frustrated by his sense of helplessness to do what he earnestly believed needed to be done, especially about "the spiritual situation" on campus; some student disciplinary problems in 1962-63 finally exhausted him, and he returned to his proper station in classroom and laboratory until 1972. He helped design the new (1968) science building; it was named for him in 1981, four years before his death.