Chautauqua Literary Arts pays tribute to Philip Gerard

Assorted items represent the life and contributions of Philip Gerard — a frequent prose writer-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center and longtime co-editor of the literary journal Chautauqua who passed away last fall — at a memorial and celebration service Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Brett Phelps/Staff Photographer

Kaitlyn Finchler
Staff Writer

Philip Gerard was an open spirit who fully understood what it meant to be a Chautauquan. 

“He really did embrace the idea of the four pillars,” said his wife Jill Gerard. “He is a very talented musician, he did sketching and painting and (was) a really fine writer and teacher.”

To commemorate, cherish and celebrate Philip, 67, who died on Nov. 7, 2022, Chautauqua Literary Arts held a memorial for him Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Philip had long-lasting contributions to both the Writers’ Center and the Chautauqua literary journal. He also planned, established and created the MFA program at University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where he was a professor.

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, on April 7, 1955, he is survived by Jill, his children Ashley and Patrick Leahman, and his Aussie, Daisy.

“Today we remember Philip Gerard’s work both here in the Institution, but also as a human being,” Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts, told those gathered. “Thank you to his family, for allowing him to spend his time here to meet with each one of you and witness his quest, his intellect and his humanity.”

Calling itself the “portable Chautauqua season between covers,” Chautauqua, the literary journal, features sections loosely reflecting each of the nine summer weeks with graduate and undergraduate students in the Department of Creative Writing at UNCW working as members of the editorial team.

Always readily making sure the journal “stood on a firm footing,” Jill said she handled administrative tasks while Philip was the “people person.”

Jill Gerard is comforted by members of the Chautauqua Literary Arts community following a memorial and celebration of her husband’s life Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Brett Phelps/Staff Photographer

During summers on the grounds, Philip always took opportunities for lifelong learning.

“Philip was the better Chautauquan because he never missed a lecture,” Jill said. “I would say, ‘OK, maybe I’ll meet you. I’m going to grab coffee.’ And I would always be somewhere else outside or getting the recap from him.”

Philip was always the person to take care of others before himself, Jill said. Once, he even stayed to teach at the Writers’ Center after hearing news of his father’s admittance to hospice care.

“He felt obligated to make sure the students were taken care of and that’s who he was,” Jill said. “He was just a really kind and good-hearted person who’s always trying to lift the other people up.”

During the memorial, Joe Mackall, a friend of both Philip and Jill for over 20 years, said he and Philip would compare notes on teaching in the Writers’ Center.

“Every student I’ve ever talked to, students who had us both, tell me to my face (that) Philip’s a much better teacher,” Joe said. “There’s nothing I can say except, ‘I know.’ ”

Philip had a deep love for his family and people noticed. Joe said Philip’s presence was a force that was felt in the room when he entered, even though he was also a keen observer.

“After (going on an) adventure, I love going somewhere quiet and just listening to the world,” Philip said once to Joe.

Diane Hume George, who previously served as a co-director of the pre-season Chautauqua Writers’  Festival, recalled interrupting Philip and Jill’s wedding preparations about 15 years ago to ask them if they would co-edit the literary journal. 

“Now, it would have been decent to let them go get married, go on their honeymoon and come back,” Diane said. “But the board was in a hurry to know whether this was going to work or not, and Philip and Jill collectively said, ‘Yes.’ ”

For years after, Philip would remind Diane of the timing of her request, leaning over to her and rasping a la Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” to say: “You come to me on the day of my wedding and you asked me to edit a journal.”

Philip had an optimistic outlook on life, but didn’t shy away from addressing tough topics in his writing such as war, loss, violence and racism.

“(Philip) was unafraid to confront the forces of true evil inside the covers of several of his books,” Diane said. “But he remained at heart, an inveterate optimist. I don’t know how he did that.”

Rather than address those gathered, Diane spoke directly to Philip at the memorial.

“You, Philip, are still here — whatever that means,” Diane said. Because of his work as a mentor, his legacy lives on, “replaying in the lives of hundreds of fellow writers, maybe thousands.”

Georgia Court, a friend and longtime fixture in the literary arts community, dedicated a poem to Philip. He and Jill were the first guests she hosted for the literary arts.

“I always remember that (first) dinner and how lovely Jill was, always bubbly and vivacious and charming,” Georgia said. “And how wonderful and kind Philip was. I have enjoyed knowing them (so much) over the years.”

Friend and coworker Leslie Rubinkowski said Philip had a “gift for building gorgeous stories.”

Whether discussing deep fears and safe truths, joking over a beer, or helping students who may have struggled with a project, she said Philip was “every kind of friend.”

“He is such a good teacher,” Leslie said. “Part of my life’s work now feels like I’m telling the story of my friend about the large moments and the small to anyone who wants to feel.”

Knowing that he is gone, but never forgotten, Jill said she’s still learning how to move forward.

“It’s very strange to be here without him,” she said earlier in the day before the memorial. “I don’t know how to keep doing all the things that we did without him, but I will.”


The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.