LaRue Gilleland, a respected journalist and academic who was instrumental in transforming a small journalism program into what is now Northeastern’s School of Journalism, and is credited with helping to create the university’s graduate program in journalism, died on July 24 at his home in Florida. He was 89.
Under Gilleland’s tenure as director from 1981 to 1992, a fledgling program blossomed into a full-fledged journalism school, bolstered by an increase in funding and the development of new facilities. In that time, the department swelled from three to 12 faculty members and student enrollment more than doubled.
“LaRue helped build the foundation of the School of Journalism that we still are building upon to this day, and we’ve always valued his contribution,” said Jonathan Kaufman, who currently directs the journalism school.
A native of Missouri, Gilleland earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He started his career working at newspapers in Honolulu, Los Angeles, Tulsa, and Memphis, during which he interviewed the likes of President Harry Truman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Elvis Presley.
Prior to coming to Northeastern, Gilleland taught in, and later chaired, the journalism department at the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1963 to 1981.
Friends and colleagues described him as a leader who was effective, but warm and accessible; quiet, but a witty conversationalist, and an affable and easygoing colleague and friend. They say he instilled camaraderie and brought a sense of stability to Northeastern’s journalism department. In his free time, he was an avid sailor who loved traveling and reading.
“I think we all will remember LaRue as a modest, humble, soft-spoken, and decent leader who achieved a lot,” said Nicholas Daniloff, who was hired by Gilleland as a visiting journalism professor and then took over the reins of the journalism school when Gilleland stepped down. Daniloff retired from teaching in 2014.
“He never seemed like he was telling anybody what to do,” said James Ross, a journalism professor who was hired by Gilleland in 1988. “He just had this charm and intelligence that got things done in a very low-key way.”
Ross said he will remember Gilleland as a friend, colleague, and a boss who represented one of the “great old-school journalists.”
“He really appreciated what journalism can be and should be,” he said. “And, he hired faculty and developed a program that is still getting better today. He really laid the foundation for making it one of the best university journalism programs in the country.”
In 1985, Charles Fountain had just finished his first book, a biography of the revered Boston Globe columnist George Frazier, and was looking for a journalism job in Boston while appearing on radio and TV to promote his book. When Gilleland offered him a faculty position in the department, Fountain said he found the proposition simultaneously “flattering and a little frightening.” Thirty-five years later, he still teaches journalism at Northeastern.
“He had a vision for what the school should be and he implemented it by hiring people who shared that vision,” Fountain said. “And that vision was that it should be a program rooted in professionalism taught by erstwhile journalists who cared very much about their own journalism, but cared even more about passing it on to the students in their care.”
Reflecting on a favorite memory of Gilleland, Fountain recalled returning to work after the birth of his daughter, and finding a silver cup on his desk bearing an inscription of her name, a gift from Gilleland and his wife, Betsy.
“It was, I thought, a wonderfully kind gesture at the time, and I’ve come to understand that it was reflective of that decency that I saw in him and everything that he did in the way that he treated our students,” Fountain said.
The two stayed in touch after Gilleland retired and moved to The Villages, Florida, exchanging emails and sharing meals during their visits to New England and Florida.
Gilleland is survived by his wife, Betsy; his children, Virginia Gilleland of Youngsville, Louisiana, Michelle Daigle of Norfolk, Massachusetts, and Ross Gilleland of Norfolk, Massachusetts; six granddaughters; and four great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter, Louise Lenzen of Las Vegas, Nevada.
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