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Alec MacGillis: Remembering Mr. Gilson who brought history to life at Pittsfield High School

Charles 'Chuck' Gilson

Charles "Chuck" Gilson, a former teacher at Pittsfield High School, left a big impression on students like Alec MacGillis by bringing his history subjects to life with encyclopedic knowledge and larger-than-life impressions of historical figures. Gilson died last month. He was 88.

There were two camps among the students who took European history with Charles “Chuck” Gilson at Pittsfield High School in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s: those who most celebrated his reenactment of El Cid’s corpse being propped on his steed in full armor to rally the troops during the siege of Valencia, and those who preferred his rendering of the death of Rasputin. I was in the latter camp. Of all Mr. Gilson’s instructive antics, nothing compared to his staging of the laborious assassination of the mysteriously influential Siberian holy man who in 1916 survived poisoning by potassium cyanide and several shots from a revolver before finally being drowned.

You might think late-Romanov Russian history would have been a tough sell for Pittsfield teenagers at the end of the Cold War, which was when I took the class, but only if you’d never experienced the pedagogic whirlwind that was Mr. Gilson, then a 50-ish man with oversize glasses, a legendary multihued combover, and wolfish smile, who for several decades staggered across the classroom as the indefatigable Mad Monk, among other roles.

As my classmates and I entered high school in the late 1980s, General Electric had just closed its huge electrical transformer division in Pittsfield, the new Berkshire Mall was accelerating the decline of North Street, and the city’s population decline, from a peak of 58,000 in 1960 to 44,000 today, was well underway. But somehow, thanks to the tax base, social capital and high expectations associated with the city’s more prosperous recent past, Pittsfield High retained an astonishing roster of educators, too many to name.

There was surely some luck involved, too. Mr. Gilson had been bound for a different calling: At St. Michael’s College in Vermont, he had been a member of the Edmundite Order, but left it for a master’s degree at Boston College before returning to his hometown of Pittsfield.

As someone who’d already endured countless hours in European churches and castles while visiting my mother’s German family, my openness to his tales was foreordained. But he was barely less captivating to the Pittsfield kids who came to his subject cold. As autumn gave way to the Berkshire winter and then a muddy spring, he carried us through the sweep of several dozen centuries, from ancient Sumeria to the Bay of Pigs.

Such surveys are daunting endeavors and prone to superficiality. But somehow, his style of instruction, combining intellectual passion with riveting performance, enlivened so many important historical figures and episodes that three decades later, their names still hold the charge he first gave them: Savonarola, Zwingli, Bloody Mary; the Defenestration of Prague, the Committee of Public Safety, the Emancipation of the Serfs; the Dreyfus Affair and Zimmerman Telegram, the Beer Hall Putsch and Night of the Long Knives, Yalta and Potsdam. There was art, too: Raphael, Brueghel, Delacroix, Goya …

Nor did he allow “European” to bound us unnecessarily. His unit on colonialism brought us to Cecil Rhodes and Lord Kitchener, to Gandhi and Nehru; World War II took us to Manchuria and Hiroshima, to Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek. And this world was delivered with scarcely a glance at a textbook, but rather by Mr. Gilson himself, armed with nothing more than a piece of chalk and the large map hanging at the front of the room. He would gambol about as he told the stories he loved best and then peppered us with questions, as if to check not only the knowledge but the passion he was trying to share. Every so often, he would be struck by the delight of some new name or term or moment and he would move to the chalkboard with exaggerated steps, like a cartoon burglar, to add it to his cursive smorgasbord of the things he was certain we needed to know.

Each year, so many sophomores enjoyed his European history class that some 25 signed up for a repeat performance. In his Advanced Placement European history class, Mr. Gilson’s emphasis shifted to the big themes the AP board would test us on: Enlightenment, revolution, industrialism, nationalism, balance of powers, imperialism, totalitarianism. But to us kids, the class was essentially a chance to hear Mr. Gilson’s greatest hits all over again, and to live a little longer in the world he rendered so colorful and coherent.

My own adulation was unabashed. At the Latin Club’s annual toga banquet (a big deal in a school with a big Latin Club, the legacy of the legendary Janet Rajotte), I staged a group skit of a parody of a Gilson class, with myself in the title role. In college, I loaded up on more European history classes (though today it’s clear that Mr. Gilson’s taught me most of what I remember best). After graduation, I came close to taking a high school history teaching job, before landing at a small newspaper instead. Another student who first fell in love with European history in Mr. Gilson’s classroom returned to teach at Pittsfield High; today, she works for the State Department.

My reporting in the years that followed was exclusively domestic — somehow, my dream of working as a correspondent abroad, where my arsenal of Mr. Gilson’s facts might have been most useful, never came to be. But last fall, I had the chance to do a four-month fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and so 30 years after I last sat in the middle row of Mr. Gilson’s classroom, I was suddenly re-immersed in the history he’d introduced to me, as I brought my sons to see the Wannsee Conference villa and the Stasi prison and the gargantuan Soviet War Memorial in Berlin, or visited the even more gargantuan memorial to the allied victory over Napoleon, in Leipzig.

Later, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I found myself returning again to Pittsfield High and 1990 and Chuck Gilson’s retelling of the Kievan Rus, and Peter the Great, and the Great Famine, and I was thankful, amidst this new and horrific European story, for the educational foundation that might help me make sense of it and explain it to my sons.

While I had seen Mr. Gilson several times over the years, and each time made plain to him how much he had meant to us, I did not get to share this latest appreciation before receiving word of his death at age 88, last month. So I will say it now. To Mr. Gilson, the extraordinary teacher, the mad monk: thank you.

Alec MacGillis is a reporter at ProPublica and a 1992 graduate of Pittsfield High.

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