At Don Gillmor’s retirement roast in 1998, a few of the longtime journalism professor’s former students returned to the University of Minnesota and displayed a story he wrote as a cub reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press. They took the liberty of editing the piece, which was rife with redundancies, clichés and even an average lead paragraph.
That was probably the only time they had anything on the esteemed professor, who over a 45-year teaching career established himself as the nation’s foremost authority on ethics and media law and advised scores of graduate students who went on to become faculty members at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
“He trained some of the finest media law scholars,” said Albert Tims, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. “Don’s contributions brought this institution to center stage nationally and internationally.”
Gillmor died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses Thursday at Rose of Sharon Manor in Roseville. He was 86.
He authored several scholarly articles during his career, and his seminal book “Mass Communication Law: Cases and Comment” became a definitive text. The award-winning book, co-authored with Jerome Barron and Todd Simon in 1969, had six editions and was widely used in journalism and law schools across the country.
His many years of teaching and research “shaped the major contours of the field of mass communication law,” said Daniel Wackman, former director of the U’s journalism school.
Gillmor joined the University of Minnesota faculty in 1965, after he had taught for 12 years at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He became a student favorite at the U, remembered by undergraduate and graduate students for his passion for media law and ethics and for his teaching, and for his Irish humor and good looks. In 1973, Esquire magazine named him one of the nation’s sexiest professors.
“I would go to class sometimes, and he would get a standing ovation for his lectures,” said his daughter, Vivian Cathcart, of Toronto. “He loved to teach.”
Gillmor founded the U’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law in 1984 and was named its first Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law in 1990.
“Gillmor made it a point to take seriously the relationship between freedom and responsibility, autonomy and accountability, reminding us all that there’s a difference between what we have a right to do and what’s right to do,” said Theodore Glasser, a former U professor who now teaches at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
Gillmor recognized threats to media freedom, and in the 1980s stepped in to help save the Minnesota Daily when the school was about to cut off funding for the student newspaper, which had published a string of controversial articles. He also was a frequent guest on local and national broadcast discussions about the media.
He served as a guest professor in Germany, Sweden, South Korea, Russia, Taiwan and at Columbia University in New York. At the U, he received many honors, including the Horace T. Morse Award for contributions to undergraduate education.
“He was considered to be a master teacher in the classroom,” said Jane Kirtley, Silha’s current director. “His influence is still being felt.”
In addition to his daughter, Gillmor is survived his wife of 63 years, Sophia, of St. Paul; a son, Peter, of Minneapolis; two brothers, Douglas of Calgary, Alberta, and Alan, of Ottawa, Ontario, and three grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Roseville Memorial Chapel, 2245 Hamline Av. N., Roseville.