In Memoriam: UVA Storyteller, Dignitary Sandy Gilliam ‘Will Be Greatly Missed’

June 12, 2024 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. was at the University of Virginia longer than he wasn’t. An alumnus, he served as a special assistant to four presidents, secretary to the Board of Visitors and University historian. 

Besides being a historian, Gilliam, who died Saturday at the age of 91, was a raconteur and an old-fashioned gentleman. He had a conspiratorial way of telling a story, as if he were letting you in on a secret he had carried forever, giving you all the details.

“The great thing about Sandy was that when you went to him with a question, you got not only an answer, but full commentary about what happened – what the background was, what the outcome was, who was involved, what their motivations were, who was happy, who was angry – a full explanation,” said Brian Hogg, the senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect, “often along with a couple of other stories that had some tangential relationship to your original question.

“He wasn’t someone to go to for a quick answer; he was someone to go to for a complete and colorful answer.”

Gilliam was an expert on the University, in part because it was a family tradition.

“The first Gilliam came here in 1829, and the family has [since] shown remarkably little imagination about the choice of college,” Gilliam once said.

In the late 1930s, Mary Proffit, secretary to Ivey Lewis, the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, told the then-4-year-old Gilliam he would attend UVA, as had his father. And he did, earning a history degree in 1955 and later taking several graduate courses. Gilliam’s son, Alexander Gilliam III, graduated from the University in 1997.

Sandy Gilliam wasn’t always at UVA. He worked in counterintelligence in the U.S. Army and, after a year of graduate school at UVA, taught at St. Christopher’s School, an all-male private college preparatory school in Richmond. He joined the U.S. foreign service in the early 1960s, specializing in the Middle East. After two years at the embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, Gilliam was reassigned to Chad, in Africa, where he also ran a consulate in neighboring Cameroon for several months.

But UVA was never far from his mind.

“The new administrative officer and his wife arrived and a couple of months later their daughter, a student at one of the universities around Washington, took a semester off to live with her parents in Africa,” Gilliam remembered. “They had a party to introduce her to people at the embassy and I turned up in my Bass Weejuns. She took one look at my shoes and said ‘You went to UVA, didn’t you?’”

A portrait of Gilliam leaned on a column outside
Gilliam worked around the world with the U.S. foreign service, but UVA was never far away from him. (University Communications photo)

Following years in the field, Gilliam returned to Washington to study Arabic. He continued his study in Beirut, where his job at the State Department involved gathering information for the secretary of state. He left the State Department in 1970 to join Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton’s administration, where two old friends, Staige D. Blackford and John Ritchie, both UVA mainstays, were already established.

Years later, Holton remembered Gilliam as his “helpful, right-hand man,” and a “marvelous handler of details. He was always agreeable and calm and willing to see both sides.”

When Holton left office 1975, Gilliam turned down an offer from incoming Gov. Mills Godwin and returned to the State Department to work as a liaison with Congress, but soon left the department a second time. Blackford, who was then editing the Virginia Quarterly Review, encouraged Gilliam to take a job with then-UVA President Frank Hereford.

Gilliam had doubts about working for his old school, fearing that at 41 he was an old graduate trying to recapture lost days of youth in what was no longer an all-male University. He drove from Washington on a grey and gloomy November day, in a foul mood himself, to see Hereford in his office in Pavilion VIII and to examine his own motives.

“As I drew abreast of my old room on the Lawn, the door opened and the woman who lived there came out,” Gilliam said, thinking that it felt perfectly right and proper. “I walked into Frank’s office a few minutes later and said, ‘Doubts resolved.’ I figured I wasn’t suffering so much from the old grad syndrome.”

Even at UVA, foreign affairs followed Gilliam. As part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration, he handled the arrangements for a visit from the Queen of England to UVA. The queen’s trip included a walk on the Lawn, a visit with students in a Lawn room and a reception in the Rotunda, followed by lunch for 120 people. It took him months to organize the successful four-hour affair, working with state and federal officials on protocol and security issues.

“When it was over, I went home, mixed a strong drink and sat in the shower for 20 minutes,” Gilliam said.

After working as a special assistant for Hereford and his successors, Robert M. O’Neil, John T. Casteen III and Teresa Sullivan, Gilliam served as the secretary to the Board of Visitors from 1991 to 2009 and was named the University’s chief history officer.

“Sandy Gilliam was a dear personal friend and an invaluable asset to the University and its alumni in many critical roles over many years,” former Rector Gordon Rainey said. “He will be greatly missed by all whose lives he touched.” 

“Everyone who has known the University and its people during the last 50 years has in one way or another known them through Sandy,” Casteen said. “Sandy has been the essential interpreter of the place and its people, but only rarely its chief defender, and then when he was willing to be right while all around him were wrong. More often, he let folly run its course while waiting patiently to pick up the pieces. In his view of the University’s past, space for improvement was always there. He backed the authentic reformers, the people with visions, the sometimes-isolated loners who saw truth where it was.”

Double Hoo Thomas Hall, a former Raven Society president while in the School of Law, socialized with Gilliam at Raven functions and in Gilliam’s Rotunda office, which was chockablock with souvenirs of the University’s past.

“Sandy was a one-of-a-kind University treasure, who combined his deep knowledge and love of the University’s history and traditions with a keen interest and care for the University’s present, especially for its current students,” Hall wrote in an email. 

“Everyone from callow first-years to University presidents were welcome in Sandy’s Rotunda office/personal museum, where he dispensed sage advice and decades of UVA stories in his inimitable Petersburg accent. From Raven Society events to Board of Visitors meetings to many Final Exercises to selection committees for all sorts of awards and positions,” Hall wrote, “Sandy was an indispensable part of my UVA experience. The University he loved so dearly won’t be the same without him.”

The family has scheduled a memorial service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on University Avenue in Charlottesville on June 29 at 10 a.m. 

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications