Life Remembered: Gary Adelman never lost zest for life

CHAMPAIGN — Gary Adelman, a longtime University of Illinois English professor who died at 76 on Sunday, had a romantic outcome to losing his sight at a young age — finding a new love that lasted the remaining 31 years of his life.

A memorial service will be held at a later date, said his widow, Phyllis, to mark his new book about three famous Catholic authors. Owens Funeral Home, 101 N. Elm St., C, is in charge of arrangements.

Friends recall Professor Adelman as a teacher, novelist, critic and poet who formed a tight bond with his wife, not the least of which was her giving him one of her kidneys.

Fred and Diane Gottheil, longtime UI colleagues, went on regular walks with him in Meadowbrook Park starting at 8:30 a.m., that later progressed to Espresso Royale.

They remember Phyllis Adelman jokingly telling her husband, "I don't want my kidney getting wet!"

The Brooklyn Jew and the Midwestern preacher's daughter met after the professor had already lost his sight from diabetes about age 29, and had written an autobiographical novel, "Honey Out of Stone."

He had lost his sight not long after joining the University of Illinois English Department, Fred Gottheil said.

With his dog at his side, and letting nothing stop him from walking to office and errands, the professor was something of a moving Campustown landmark.

"He was such a fixture in Champaign-Urbana for so many years," said step-daughter Katherine Runkle, who now lives in California.

His widow said that, though she majored in history and French, she'd heard a lot about the English professor.

"The women in the dorms were madly in love with Gary," she said.

Phyllis Adelman once saw him walking with his guide dog and struck up a relationship that came to include all the joys of true love — but also medical challenges for the two. It worked, she said, even with a large age difference.

Because he had learned to read while sighted, Professor Adelman didn't take to Braille, instead relying on his wife to read to him, along with books on tapes, and later a computer program.

He also had help from his colleagues, and editing work done by a local writer, Elaine Palencia, his wife said.

For all the problems with diabetes, blindness, kidney disease and skin cancer, the professor remained a delightful companion, his friends say.

"He died peacefully and very courageously," his widow said. "He never wanted to draw any attention to his problems."

Gottheil, a UI professor of economics, was amazed by his friend's total recall of long passages from literature.

A relative, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein of Evanston, recalled that after receiving his mother's kidney at 44, "he was expected to survive five years at the most. Aunt Estelle's kidney functioned for 22 years."

"Phyllis Adelman was more than a life partner, but a life-giver," Lowenstein said. "They were together over 30 years. He got the first kidney from his mother. When it failed, amazingly, Phyllis' kidney matched, and gave him another 10 years or so."

Lowenstein, also a writer who was nurtured by the professor, remembers that Professor Adelman became an expert on the Irish author Samuel Beckett, who in turn influenced three American Catholic writers: Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy and Robert Stone.

Gottheil said Professor Adelman had wanted his Canadian publisher to use the title "Catholic Cowboys."

Instead, the book will come out in April as "Sorrow's Rigging: The Novels of Cormac McCarthy, Don Delillo, and Robert Stone."

Phyllis Adelman said her husband also wrote poetry, lately in Beckettian manner.

He was able to do the work with his wife's help and with changing digital technology, Lowenstein said.

"This took him a long time on a typewriter. The computer made it faster," he said.

His wife continued to edit, proof and offer advice on his work. The professor told her not to "give away that he was blind" if they asked why she was doing so much of the detail work.

Even without a physical computer at hand, Professor Adelman's mind functioned as a repository of words, facts and entire passages of great literature.

"Characters in Dostoyevsky's novels were as immediate to him as we were. Prince Mishkin was present for him," Lowenstein said.

"It was just a pleasure to listen to his voice; it felt like listening to a Shakespearean play. If he was excited about an author, he could recall pages accurately. Diane and I enjoyed listening to him. About the only contribution I made (to his work) was introducing him to the works of Cormac McCarthy," Fred Gottheil said.

Harold Allston of Champaign, who was a comparative literature major in the 1970s, took the professor's European literature class.

"He was passionate about the works. He was in love with 'Madame Bovary,'" the former student said.

Ethnology Professor Emeritus Bruno Nettl called his friend "very lively, vigorous, argumentative and very interested in people."

"I was amazed at the extent of his knowledge and amazed at all the things Phyllis did and sacrificed for him," he added.

He also recalled that the professor was consistently liberal in his activism and took a strong stand for faculty rights.

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read the DI wrote on January 07, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I took a class by Adelman many moons ago. He could recite long stanzas of Boewulf and other epic poems on cue. Remarkable memory.

james33 wrote on January 07, 2012 at 9:01 pm

No disrespect to this man but, What does it take for the News Gazette to do a "Life Remembered" article? I don't see anything heroic this man did! I see he made alot of money on books and being a professor, and struggled as a blind man, etc. Clint Atkins had Millions of dollars and he donated a very small percent of his worth but is recognized as a local hero. Those of us every day who sacrifice there life and large percentage of their worth are not recognized as local heros. I truly hope Phyllis has a life remembered article about her for all she sacrificed. We were seeing quite frequently every week or two another local soldiers killed in battle. I didn't see too many life remembered articles on those true "LOCAL HEROS". There might have been one article that metioned the soldiers name and what town he lived in.  If a man has a billion dollars and he gives up 100million dollars, does that make him better than the man that has $1000 and gives up $100? (the man that has a billion, his rent is a million but the man that has a thousand his rent is still five hundred)

brionkerlin wrote on January 08, 2012 at 3:01 pm

James 33 seems to have an axe to grind regarding the article.  I don't see anything in the article that says or even suggests that Gary Adelman was a "hero".  And he would have protested such a designation.  In fact, the article was rather lean, and brief, in relation to the volume of Gary's accomplishments.  I was a student of Gary's in the 60's, taking several of his classes in poetry and English literature.  More recently, in an odd coincidence, I had the opportunity to sit in on the last class he taught before retiring.  Remarkably, he showed the same brilliance and enthusiasm toward his subject that I recalled from nearly 50 years ago.  Most recently, about 6 months ago, I had a walk with Gary at Meadowbrook in which we reminisced and reflected on current affairs. 

  There is no doubt that Gary's courage and his persistent idealism/activism inspired me work toward those values in my personal life.  I can say the same for dozens of friends I knew in the 60's who had similar experiences.  I am grateful for having known this very special man, and I appreciate the recognition given him by the News Gazette. Brion Kerlin, Saint Petersburg, FL.

RamonM wrote on January 17, 2012 at 10:01 pm

I took two literature classes from Gary Adelman and it was truly an inspirational experience. Gary taught with a passion and genius that made these great works come alive. He embodies everything that is great about the University of Illinois - the quest for knowledge and truth with courage. The guy had real guts and a joy of life.


I remember visiting his office once and introducing myself to him, he had a beautifull, solid black labrador and we briefly talked about the Brothers Karamazovs. Great guy - he will be missed.....my sincere condolences to his wife and family. Ramon Mendoza