Bob Gillette, A Legendary Teacher

Cover of his latest book, Escape To Virginia: From Nazi Germany to Thalhimer's Farm.

Robert H. Gillette discusses his new book, The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer & a Rescue from Nazi Germany, at the Fairfield University Bookstore on Wednesday night. Photo: Meg Barone

Betsy Meiman Parker gave her former high school teacher Robert Gillette two pages of messages she received from other former students in a 24-hour period after posting on her Facebook page her plan to attend Gillette's lecture Wednesday at the Fairfield University bookstore. Meiman Parker said the messages came from Spain, Norway, California, Florida, Maryland and elsewhere. Photo: Meg Barone

Robert Gillette, left, speaks with two teachers now teaching a course he initiated at Fairfield High School. Dave Nulf, center, teaches Call of the Wild, an experiencial nature literature course, at Fairfield Ludlowe High, and Rich Novack teaches the same English elective at Fairfield Warde. Photo: Meg Barone

The cover of Robert H. Gillette's new book, ìThe Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer & a Rescue from Nazi Germany,î which chronicles the efforts of William B. Thalhimer, an American department store owner, to bring two dozen young Jewish students from Germany to a Virginia farm in the 1930s. Photo: German businessman Oskar Schindler is known the world over as an unlikely humanitarian, who turned his factory into a refuge for about 1,100 Jews, sparing those on his famed list from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

Robert H. Gillette, center, a former Fairfield resident and teacher, with First Selectman Mike Tetreau, left, who had been one of his students, and Fire Chief Richard Felner on Wednesday when Gillette discussed his new book about an unsung Holocaust hero in a presentation at the Fairfield University Bookstore. Photo: Meg Barone

Paddling Prince Edward Island, Bob's first published book, available through Amazon.

Dear Friends,

In 2011, The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer and a Rescue from Nazi Germany (The History Press  was published, and at many of my book talks, people urged me to write a narrative account for young adults. This I did by writing an entirely new book, Escape To Virginia: From Nazi Germany to Thalhimer’s Farm. The book is creative history; it is all true, but it reads like fiction. In it, I trace the rescued lives of two teenage Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Hopefully, not only for our young people, but for all of us, we will be inspired by the story’s message of Hope and Courage.

All three (of my) books **** were written in "retirement." It has been such a luxury to have the time and the passion to be able to do serious research and writing. So, I urge all my fellow teachers to consider writing. I am currently working on a teacher's guide for the newest book, Escape To Virginia. Writing this guide has allowed me to vicariously be in the classroom once more. What a thrill! Actually, several school systems and schools have plans to include the book in their curriculum, and I will be meeting with some classes as a guest author.

Thanks.

Bob Gillette

Available at:

The History Press/Arcadia Publishing, (888) 313-2665, or e-mail atsales@arcadiapublishing.com; Amazon; Barnes & Noble; Givens Books;  or your own favorite, independent book store.

E-book available in March.



****Just to clarify, my first book was Paddling Prince Edward Island (Falcon Guides, 2006). My second book was The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer and a Rescue from Nazi Germany (The History Press, 2011). Escape To Virginia: From Nazi Germany to Thalhimer's Farm (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing, 2016) is my third book.

All three books were written in "retirement." It has been such a luxury to have the time and the passion to be able to do serious research and writing. So, I urge all my fellow teachers to consider writing. I am currently working on a teacher's guide for the newest book, Escape To Virginia. Writing this guide has allowed me to vicariously be in the classroom once more. What a thrill! Actually, several school systems and schools have plans to include the book in their curriculum, and I will be meeting with some classes as a guest author.

_____________________________________________________

The following news story about author and former Fairfield teacher, Bob Gillette, appeared in the Fairfield Citizen on May 2, 2014 after his visit to the Fairfield University Bookstore. Clearly an inspirational teacher and person, Bob's latest book, "The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer and a Rescue from Nazi Germany" (The History Press, 2011), tells an inspirational story. Be sure to click on the photos at the bottom to read the captions.

William B. Thalhimer, an American department store owner, had a list of his own, unknown until now. Proof of his heroic and persistent efforts to bring two dozen young Jewish students from Germany to a Virginia farm in the 1930s sat in a box in a cavernous room of boxes at the National Archives for decades until Fairfield native Robert H. Gillette's persistence brought Thalhimer's story to light.

Gillette, who taught for many years in Fairfield high schools, documents Thalhimer's rescue mission, creation of a safe haven on the farm and the struggle of the refugees to start a new life in rural America in his new book, "The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer and a Rescue from Nazi Germany" (The History Press, 2011). 

Gillette, who relocated to Lynchburg, Va., with his wife Marsha in 2004, appeared Wednesday at the newly opened Fairfield University Bookstore to discuss the story of courage, patience and hope on two continents. He is the first author to speak at the new store at the former Borders site downtown, which the university opened earlier this month.

His first book, "A Paddler's Guide to Prince Edward Island," was published in 2006.

He characterized his latest book as "a historical analysis of immigration history of this country; not our shining moment." Back in the 1930s, Gillette said about 60 percent of the U.S. population was anti-Semitic and the State Department was slow to issue visas to Jews, "even as the Nazi noose became tighter and tighter." 

"No one can say we didn't know what was going on in Germany," said Gillette, who told the audience of about 100 people that his five years of research uncovered news clippings with undeniable front page headlines. 

Gillette said Thalhimer tried for 15 months to work with the State Department to bring the students to U.S. soil. Initially, the State Department was "a topography of exclusion," but eventually Thalhimer wore down officials there and won their confidence.

"William Thalhimer did not give up. He would not give up on those kids," said Gillette, who attended Grasmere School and Roger Ludlowe High School (Class of 1955), where he was an outstanding athlete as well as president of the student council and the senior class. 

Gillette taught English at Andrew Warde High School and Fairfield High School for 30 years until retiring in 1999. During that time, he received numerous awards, including Teacher of the Year three times. He also served as the director of Religious Education at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport for 27 years, adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education & Allied Professions at Fairfield University and lecturer at Sacred Heart University. 

Although Gillette appeared at the bookstore to discuss his new book, the event became a sort of "This is Your Life" moment with many classmates, friends and former students populating the audience.

Leann Ratner, of Fairfield, a graduate of Fairfield High School who did not have Gillette as a teacher but was inspired by his example, said his book is really a metaphor for his own life.

"I thought the story was fascinating," she said. "There's probably thousands of stories out there. It makes you stop and think (about other unsung heroes). If you can make a difference in one person's life, you can consider yourself successful and fulfilled. 

"It's kind of Mr. Gillette's life, too. There are so many people here in Fairfield that he touched who came to hear him speak." 

"You're never too old to get something out of a Bob Gillette lecture. It makes me feel old and it makes me feel young again," said Jeff Peterson of Fairfield, who told Gillette, "Sitting in the audience was like sitting back in your class." 

Betsy Meiman Parker, now a Milford resident, said Gillette enriched many lives as evidenced by the response she got when she posted her plans to attend his lecture on her Facebook page 24 hours before it took place. Meiman Parker received two pages worth of messages from Gillette's former students from as far away as Spain and Norway. 

One former student, now living in Florida, told Meiman Parker, "Please tell him I said hello and good luck. What an amazing man, still the best teacher I ever had, when I needed a good teacher the most. That guy changed my life. ... If you have a chance, tell him I said Thank You for teaching me to read between the lines." 

Gillette recounted boyhood memories growing up near the Fairfield University campus and playing for his two coaches, Fernand "Fern" Tetreau -- the father of newly elected First Selectman Mike Tetreau -- and Bob Seirup, who were in the audience Wednesday. He said both men influenced him and his teammates as students and as players. From Tetreau, he said he learned "playing hard and playing fair and never swearing." 

Gillette said he felt like "a taproot going into this very soil of Fairfield."

After the lecture, Gillette caught up with former students and classmates, including Fire Chief Richard Felner and the younger Tetreau. He not only autographed numerous books, but took the time to write a personal message in each. 

"Bob was always a gentleman, well-spoken," Felner said. "He was a leader and he's still a leader. I'm overwhelmed that he's here." 

Elaine Bowman, program manager of the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University, said officials at the center were pleased to have sponsored the first event at the bookstore, along with Congregation B'nai Israel, especially with Gillette as the guest speaker discussing such a courageous story.Meg Barone


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ekuzabeth leonardo schwendeman | Reply 19.09.2017 22.05

Bob was always a caring person and as such was our class 1955 president.....many years ago after a reunion in Stratford he came to our rescue.

Julie Hastings | Reply 21.08.2016 13.41

Just ordered Escape to Virginia. Is there a way to contact Bob Gillette? I teach at a local school, would love to invite him.
Julie Hastings

Paula S. 22.08.2016 21.01

Hi Again Julie,
Bob said I should give you his email: gilcanoe@gmail.com.

Paula S. 22.08.2016 18.13

Julie, I am away from home until next Sunday (8/28?). I will get back to you when I have my membership info which is on my computer at home Paula S.

Irene Devine | Reply 01.03.2016 16.06

So privileged to have had Bob and Marsha come and speak to our Tuesday morning Bible Study Group at Peakland United Methodist Church!

Jonathan Beauchamp | Reply 18.02.2016 09.31

Bob --I wish I had known about this beforehand; I would have loved to see you again. Jon Beauchamp

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Latest comments

03.08 | 13:00

Thanks Bob. I didn't know her but wish I had. She sounds so wonderful.

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03.08 | 12:57

Thanks Rena. I didn't know her, but she sounds like a wonderful woman.

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03.08 | 10:00

Jane was an invaluable member of the Deaf Ed staff while I served as School Psy. She was a master teacher and mentor sharing her enthusiasm for life with all

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03.08 | 09:58

So very sad to hear that Jane died. She graced my classroom in assisting a deaf student. She was always so enthusiastically engaged and helpful.

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