A life of integrity: W&M remembers Gill Cell

  • In remembrance
    In remembrance  Gill Cell was W&M's third provost and first female provost. She led the development of W&M's first strategic plan.  Photo by C. James Gleason
  • Charter Day
    Charter Day  Gill Cell (right) poses for a photo with Margaret, The Lady Thatcher (left) at the 1994 Charter Day ceremony. Thatcher was W&M's 21st chancellor.  Photo by C. James Gleason
  • Something special
    Something special  Gill Cell at the podium at the 2001 Charter Day ceremony. Cell's British accent added something special to her reading of the College's charter at the annual event.  
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In multiple interviews with the friends and former colleagues of Gillian T. Cell, one word was repeated: integrity.

“She was a person of integrity, extraordinarily strong academic values, and she was a very, very interesting combination of the old-fashioned and the innovative,” said former William & Mary President Tim Sullivan. “She managed to protect the traditional heart of the academic enterprise while taking William & Mary to places I think it never could have imagined it could go. Those were some of the things that made her special.”

listCell, W&M’s third provost, died on Sept. 7 of ALS at her home in North Carolina. This week, her friends and former colleagues are mourning her loss and remembering the immense impact that her work – including the development of the College’s first strategic plan -- had on William & Mary.

“She was the genuine article,” said former William & Mary Provost Geoff Feiss, Cell's successor. “She commanded respect, demanded excellence from the people around her, didn’t always suffer fools, but she was the real deal.”

Originally from England, Cell received her doctoral degree in history from the University of Liverpool. A few years after moving to North Carolina in 1965 to teach at the University of North Carolina, she became the first woman to receive a tenure-track position in UNC’s history department. She went on to become the first female chair of the department and later the first female dean of Arts & Sciences at UNC.

In 1993, Cell took on the provost position at William & Mary; once again, she was the first woman to assume the role. She also undertook another first in the new position: W&M’s first strategic plan.

“She did a masterful job of creating consensus in areas where there were really profound differences between constituencies and produced a plan that was concise, put emphasis on what was most important and allowed for that plan to be successfully implemented because of the way in which she led the building of it,” said Sullivan, who served as president during Cell’s tenure as provost.

In addition to leading that gargantuan effort, Cell skillfully redirected resources as W&M’s state support declined, advanced the College in the area of information technology and worked tirelessly to support faculty members. 

And Cell’s British accent added a fitting touch to one of W&M’s long-standing traditions: the reading of W&M’s Royal Charter during the annual Charter Day ceremony.

“She came to love William & Mary and was, herself, beloved and respected while among us,” President Taylor Reveley said Monday in a message to the campus community.

“Gill’s countless friends at William & Mary are grateful for her marvelous life,” Reveley added. “She will be missed.”

In 2003 – the year that she retired from the College -- Cell received William & Mary’s highest honor for members of the academic community, the Thomas Jefferson Award. Following her retirement, Cell moved back to North Carolina where she served on several boards and committees.

In a phone interview on Monday morning, Sullivan recalled how important Cell was to his presidency.

“Gill and I were blessed to have an extraordinarily close relationship that was both professional and personal,” he said. “That made the leadership of the College immensely easier for me. Because we had an entirely trusting relationship, we had no difficulty whatever in telling each other the truth. … We were able to be entirely candid with each other and that built on itself and made possible many good things for William & Mary.”

Cell had what is known in the military as “command presence,” Sullivan said.

“She earned the respect of the William & Mary community and managed to inspire a little bit of fear in a lot of people, too. She was not a person to be crossed, fair as she was.”

Shirley Aceto, former assistant to the provost, also remembered Cell’s tenacity.

“If she took a job on, she went on and on to complete it,” Aceto said. “She never gave up on any assignment she had, even though there were a lot of hurdles she had to incur through that strategic planning. She was just tenacious. That was her personality. She did it firm and strong and had a beautiful way of doing that.”

Though Cell was her boss, Aceto and the provost formed a deep personal friendship, enjoying wine, dinners and conversations together.

Like Sullivan, Aceto remembers Cell as someone who was very well-respected and was full of integrity and honesty. She also remembers her as someone who was devoted to her family – including her daughter and two sons.

“She was just a beautiful person,” said Aceto. “I can’t say enough good about her.”

Feiss, who was appointed as provost following Cell’s departure, actually knew her when they were both at UNC. He was the department chair and she was his dean. A few years later, they both ended up at William & Mary.

“She loved William & Mary,” he said. “I think in some ways she found her home. She just truly enjoyed being at William & Mary, and she was very, very good at her job.”

Although Cell could be somewhat intimidating, Feiss said, she was always fair.

“She had absolute integrity,” he said. “If Gill said she would do something you didn’t need it in writing. To work with her was a charm because you’d have a conversation, you’d agree on something and you would know that that agreement stood.”

Cell also had a “wicked sense of humor,” said Feiss.

“I enjoyed her immensely,” he said.

Feiss recalled teaching one of her sons one summer at UNC. It was the only class that Cell’s son needed to graduate. When the day of final exam came, her son didn’t show. Fearing that he might have to flunk the dean’s son, Feiss put a call into Cell’s office.

“Gill says, ‘I’ve had a talk with my son. He will be in touch with you shortly, and if you have to fail him, fail him.’ That was very funny, and vintage Gill,” said Feiss.

Though her impact on William & Mary will not soon be forgotten, it’s memories like those that her friends and former colleagues will continue to most associate with Cell.

“I will miss her so much,” said Aceto.