University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

A Continuous Conversation

Robert and Jean Gilpin
Robert ’52 and Jean ’53 Gilpin

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ALUMNI PROFILES

A Continuous Conversation

There’s a lot of history to roam through, sitting down for a chat with Robert and Jean Gilpin in their Shelburne, Vermont, home, beginning even before their marriage of fifty-nine years. It carries you from Jean as a girl, listening with a thrill from the top of the stairs as her father, UVM president John Millis, and her mother joined in monthly faculty sing-alongs; to Bob as an officer on a naval destroyer during the Korean war; to the couple’s travels with their three young children, living for stints in Paris, London, and Japan. It covers Robert Oppenheimer and Bob Gilpin’s research into the previously unknown melding of science and politics; it takes you to Berkeley and back, to Cornell, Harvard and Princeton, where Bob is Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus, at the Woodrow Wilson School. But the story never fully leaves where it begins: the University of Vermont. 

Jean’s years as a UVM undergrad never overlapped with her father’s tenure as president. He wouldn’t allow it, reasoning that if she did well it would be perceived as his influence and if she did poorly he would be outraged. But in 1949, at the end of her father’s distinguished eight-year service as president, she transferred home to UVM after spending her freshman year at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Bob, a kid from Enosburg Falls with simpler roots, had already landed at UVM. “I was premed,” he scoffs, “until I was done in by quantitative analysis.” He switched to philosophy and met the professor who would change his life.  

“UVM was a superb choice for a number of reasons and one of the main ones was Lewis Feuer. He had a tremendous influence on a lot of people like me,” Bob says. “We had come from very small Vermont towns and were very inexperienced intellectually and every other way. Feuer just opened up a world to us that we didn’t know existed.” With that his academic pursuits never stopped. He earned his master’s at Cornell and his doctorate at California-Berkeley before a forty-two-year career of teaching and research at Princeton, garnering a Guggenheim and two Rockefeller fellowships along the way.

The Gilpins’ tales unfold—predictably unpredictable—as Jean tells of her arrival at UVM, where she started a romance with Bob’s roommate, another of Feuer’s followers who went on to NYU law school. (He would later be best man at the couple’s wedding and remain their lifelong friend.)

Just as Bob found a mentor at UVM, Jean was inspired by a singular figure who would help shape both of their intellectual lives—renowned debate coach of forty-five years Robert Huber. She had been a champion debater in high school and, as a speech major with a secondary interest in history, quickly found the college debate team and excelled under Huber’s training. Jean went on to earn a master’s in international politics at Western Reserve University, and had a dual career editing Bob’s many scholarly books and teaching elementary school for eighteen years.

“Absolutely,” she says, “I feel like Huber helped me learn to form arguments that affected my teaching as much as it affected the way we spent many, many years on various books in the editing process.”

The first of those book projects was incubated during Bob’s doctoral dissertation on the debate over nuclear weapons among American scientists. After leaving Berkeley, he spent a year on Capitol Hill as a congressional fellow, working for representatives on the Atomic Energy Commission where he was given extraordinary access to unedited notes on the first nuclear test ban negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. With Jean’s considerable help—and after nine drafts—Bob published his first book in 1962, American Scientists and Nuclear Weapons Policy.

“I was a terrible writer,” Bob says, “until Jean taught me. Jean was a superb editor.” He is generous with his praise and his credit, though he allows a husband-wife writer-editor team is not without its challenges. Jean adds that, for her part, she was managing that along with a three-year-old and a newborn.  

The Gilpins have a close, if occasionally cantankerous relationship, as happens when a couple lives and works together so closely. At one point when he asks if she’s going to talk or let him talk, she laughs merrily and says, “Oh, I’m going to interrupt you, of course. The way I always have.” And they move on, telling their stories, about the long-ago debates Bob would spark among Harvard intellectuals when he introduced the concept of an intersection between politics and economics…  about the progressive teaching ideas Jean put into practice …about hearing a beautiful voice singing from the balcony across the street from their apartment in Paris and looking over to see Joan Baez …about how the word around the UVM campus in the ’50s, according to Jean, was that Bob was a radical. Whether this was part of the appeal she doesn’t say, but he allows that student politics were more important to him than grades back then.

And when the conversation turns to Vermont they speak of home, and to the university of the many friendships they still have from their years here, how their middle child, Beth, graduated from UVM in 1983, and how her daughter joined the Class of 2018 this fall. “I’m really excited about that,” says Jean, “having that feeling of family continuity.”

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