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Retiring professor leaves eclectic legacy

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Longtime University of Mary Washington French professor Jim Gaines’ office is just as colorful as the Molière scholar’s personality.

Gaines has been a fixture in the French department for anyone seeking his seemingly endless knowledge or looking for a friendly face.

Pictures and signs adorn the walls, 21 years in the making, including a portrait of Molière, the 17th-century French playwright who many believe is one of the most accomplished comedic writers in Western literature.

Gaines’ office contains an eclectic collection: a sign he found in an antique shop in Hanover County that reads “Beware the attack frog,” posters from conferences, student projects and a certificate from his students naming him “most likely to be phone a friend on a TV game show.”

Colleague Brooke Di Lauro says Gaines is “one of the foremost Molière scholars, regularly uses sports analogies, addresses the students as ‘mes amis,’ and speaks of his passion for wrestling and pirates. Somehow, in Jim, such things are not paradoxical.”

In a recent senior-level stylistics class, Gaines related themes of morality and legality in Jean de La Fontaine’s “Fables” by using analogies from “The Lion King” and the crisis in Crimea. He once even beat his chest like Tarzan to prove a point.

Senior French major Victoria Kilgore said that Gaines is not the type of professor whose instruction would lend itself to standardized tests, but “this is what I hoped my college education would be like. We learn things that are actually interesting.”

“He is more focused on teaching what is significant than adhering to things predetermined as important,” she said.

Gaines began his career at UMW in 1996, serving twice as department chair for modern foreign languages and teaching classes as varied as introductory language classes, 17th-century French literature and seminars on Vikings and pirates.

When he began at UMW, the school had begun the process of dropping Russian and he had to preside over that change.

He saw the rise of study abroad for UMW students, and expansion of courses in Spanish and French, as well as the addition of Arabic and Chinese to the department.

Di Lauro, a fellow French professor, said she was initially scared about interviewing to join the faculty with Gaines, a well-known scholar and a popular teacher.

“I wondered if I would pass muster,” she said. “But it wasn’t that way at all. From the moment I met him, Jim was charming, engaging and extremely welcoming. He spoke to me like the colleague I hoped to become and treated me like an intellectual equal rather than a young doctoral candidate who was still wet behind the ears.”

Then, when she moved into her office he welcomed her with a poster of a medieval manuscript.

“I soon learned that such friendliness and generosity are typical of Jim,” she said.

Gaines can be depended upon for a great story, as well. Those who know him have heard about the time he was pickpocketed in Paris at Charles de Gaulle Train Station but followed the offender back to his gang and wrestled him over the tracks to get his wallet back. Or about the time when he and his friends in Michigan found the trivia book used for a game at a local bar and he memorized each fact to win free beer.

Gaines took a meandering road through academia to get to UMW.

Originally from Massachusetts, growing up in a family that spoke four languages—none of them French—he majored originally in chemistry during his undergraduate education at Michigan State University. Then, he switched to history and then French because he was doing well in his language courses.

He then went to the University of Pennsylvania for his master’s degree and doctorate, where he met his wife, Josephine, in a French course while they were reading a play, “The Mystery of Love.”

He decided to pursue 17th-century literature during his last year at Penn, first wanting to specialize in 20th-century existentialists and surrealists. But Molière in particular drew his attention back in time.

“There’s just something about Molière,” he said. He said, like his love of deciphering crossword puzzles, deciphering literature is almost a game.

“I think it really is a mental experiment that’s unlike most others,” Gaines said. “It touches upon almost everything worth thinking about. It’s civilization in code.”

He spent a year teaching at the University of Burgundy and returned to the United States to teach with his wife at Southeastern Louisiana University.

He said they felt lonely in Louisiana, with no family nearby, and wanted to move near Richmond to be close to her relatives. But before they could make that move, she was killed in a car crash. Then, he said, he and his son, John, were really alone in Louisiana.

Searching job listings in Virginia, he came across the opening at UMW and jumped at it, moving he and his son to Stafford County where he plans on staying after retirement from the university.

He plans to garden and work on writing, specifically a science fiction series he is working on with his son, 31, which he says, “takes place on another planet with a lot of violence and alien sex.”

He plans to continue to write poetry, short stories, translate French works and a long-term project on satirical literature of French emigrates in England.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976


Six longtime professors, including Gaines, will be awarded emeritus status at the undergraduate commencement ceremony Saturday. Here is a list:

  • David Cain will be named distinguished professor emeritus of religion.
  • James F. Gaines will be named professor emeritus of French.
  • David Hunt will be named professor emeritus of theater.
  • Kathryn E. Loesser–Casey will be named professor emerita of biology.
  • Donald Rallis will be named professor emeritus of geography.
  • Stephen P. Stageberg will be named professor emeritus of economics.

The title of emeritus is bestowed on faculty members who have served the university for at least 15 years and who have attained the rank of professor or associate professor.