Robert Lee Gale dies; WWII counterintel officer was prolific biographer of famous authors
By JANICE CROMPTON | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: December 2, 2020
PITTSBURGH (Tribune News Service) — For his 90th birthday in 2009, Robert "Bob" Gale's family helped him celebrate with a book-shaped cake frosted with the names of famous authors that he'd written about as a bibliophile and longtime American literature professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
His body of work, an astonishing 68 tomes written over the decades, includes critical biographies of literary giants such as Mark Twain, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
He was penning yet another book when he fell Nov. 11 — Veterans Day — severely injuring his hip.
Mr. Gale, of Oakland, died Nov. 26 of complications related to his injuries. He was 100.
An Ivy League-educated World War II veteran, Mr. Gale had hoped to spend Veterans Day as he usually did, sharing memories with war buddies at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, said his daughter Christine Gale, of Squirrel Hill.
"He loved Veterans Day and he was very disappointed that it was raining, so he stayed home," said Ms. Gale, a partner at the law firm of Frank, Gale, Bails, Murcko & Pocrass, P.C. "He fell when we were on the phone together."
Mr. Gale enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942, just days after he graduated third among his class of 444 students at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, with a bachelor's degree in English.
He came to the school from his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, where Mr. Gale's love of reading was fostered by his mother, who read books like "The Hound of the Baskervilles," to him as a boy.
"He was brilliant," his daughter said. "Growing up, he and his brother built a telescope and a miniature golf course with marbles. He still holds the record for the highest GPA at Roosevelt High School. His guidance counselor noticed and got him a scholarship to Dartmouth."
During the war, Mr. Gale served for four years as a counterintelligence officer in Europe and North Africa.
He met Irish nurse Maureen Dowd at the hotel where he was billeted in London. When she opened the door, he was besotted, Ms. Gale said.
The couple were married at St. James Place in November 1944 and spent their wedding night trying to survive air raids. Mrs. Gale died in 2007, leaving her husband heartbroken.
"He adored her. They were inseparable," their daughter said. "He always knew exactly how many days had passed since her death. It really impacted him tremendously. He still talked to her every night and touched her photo whenever he left the house."
Her father was proud of his military service and often wore his World War II ball cap, but his memories were also tinged with guilt, both for surviving and because he wasn't required to fight in the traditional way, his daughter said.
"He was in London during the bombings and he was in danger the whole four years, but he always felt that he escaped the horrors of the war because he didn't have to kill anyone or carry a gun," she said.
The false perception necessitated by his undercover assignment in civilian clothes also created animosity at times.
"There was a neighbor in London who treated him awful because she thought he was evading his responsibility. But he was a plainclothes officer who couldn't stay on the military base because he worked in counterintelligence. After it was over, my dad walked out of the hotel in his uniform. She broke down and cried because she'd treated him so badly. But, he had to keep it a secret."
After the war, Mr. Gale and his wife made their home in Greenwich Village, N.Y., where he used the GI Bill to attend Columbia University, earning both a master's and doctorate degree.
His arrival at Pitt in 1959 was serendipitous, prompted by a falling out with administrators at the University of Mississippi and a well-timed story in a national magazine.
"I saw an article in Time magazine about the Cathedral of Learning and [Pitt Chancellor Edward Litchfield]. I said to myself, 'That sounds like a wonderful place,'" Mr. Gale told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018.
During his years at Pitt, Mr. Gale served as director of graduate studies in the English department and taught at universities in Naples, Italy and Helsinki, Finland, as a Fulbright scholar.
He wrote his first book, "Thomas Crawford: American Sculptor," in 1964 and went on to write 26 more before his retirement in 1987.
But it was in his post-retirement years Mr. Gale really expanded his repertoire, said Michael West, a Pitt professor of English.
"Evolving from an early career as a Jamesian specialist, he launched what amounted to a second career as the author of factually oriented guidebooks to the work of major and minor American authors," Mr. West said. "They kept him intellectually active and allowed him to satisfy his curiosity about figures ranging from Poe to Sarah Orne Jewett, from Mickey Spillane to Louis L'Amour."
Her father gave her and her husband, Bill Godshall, progress reports on a regular basis, Ms. Gale said.
"My husband cooked dinner for him just about every night for 13 years," she said. "My dad ate dinner with us most nights and he would tell us how many words he'd written that day. He was constantly writing."
Mr. Gale loved to travel and could captivate any audience, from fellow tourists on a cruise ship to a group of lawyers, his daughter said.
"We loved traveling together," said Ms. Gale, who also brought her father along to Pennsylvania Bar Association workshops and conferences. "He became the honorary dad of the PBA Family Law section. I would look for a circle of women and he'd be in the middle of them. He was an incorrigible flirt."
Many former students kept in touch with Dr. Gale over the years, and dozens attended his 100th birthday party last year.
He was also a devoted and attentive friend, colleagues said.
"One of the things I liked best about Bob was his capacity for friendship," said H. David Brumble, a retired professor of English at Pitt. "When he was 100 years old, he was still corresponding — by letter, mind you — with an editor he began working with back in the '80s. And what a writer he was...When Maureen was in her last years, she became reluctant to take the medications her doctor had prescribed — and so Bob began writing little poems, to remind her and encourage her."
"Bob was a lovely man, devoted to his family, his former students, and his work," said Pitt professor of English Stephen Carr, who got to know Mr. Gale through chance encounters at the university library. "He was eminently curious and courteous, and I mourn his passing."
Life won't be the same without her father, Ms. Gale said.
"We had such a connection. We'd look at each other and know what the other was thinking. We'd finish each other's sentences," she said. "I already miss talking to him. He was my hero and my best friend."
Along with his daughter, Mr. Gale is survived by sons John, of Chicago, and James, of San Jose, Costa Rica; and five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
There will be no visitation. The funeral Mass is at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland. It will also be livestreamed on the Facebook page of John A. Freyvogel, Sons Inc. at: https://www.facebook.com/John-A-Freyvogel-Sons-Inc-104416784263799
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