Western professor’s gift will bring generations of music students to Western

Daneet Steffens
for Western Today
  • Gilliam

[ Editor's note: This story first appeared in The Campaign Insider. ]

As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, current WWU professor of music and celebrated pianist Jeffrey Gilliam held a four-year, named scholarship. “It was The Wilson Scholarship – I still remember it,” says Gilliam of that early-career gift that gave him a sense of identity, consistency, achievement and security throughout his college career. “It didn’t even cover all the tuition, but I liked having that scholarship for four years. I kept in on my resume for a long time.”

Now, with a generous estate gift, Gilliam is creating a similar opportunity for others: The Jeffrey Gilliam Piano Scholarship Endowment Fund will support multi-year scholarships – renewable for up to four years – that will bring promising young pianists to Western. Just as significantly, its establishment marks the first scholarship of its kind for the College of Fine and Performing Arts.

“We have several endowed scholarships – the Arthur Hicks, the Ford Hill, the William Sanford,” explains Gilliam, “and we use them to offer students as generous a reward as we can for their freshman year. But compared with that first year, most of our students get less assistance as they excel through their education, and that just seems so wrong. My dream with this gift is that there will be enough in the endowment to award a new, multi-year scholarship every year. If there’s enough funding collectively for that, that would be great.”

In reaching his decision, Gilliam was inspired by his good friends and committed philanthropists Sibyl Sanford and Ford Hill; Hill, of course, is also a WWU music associate professor emeritus who has been a valuable mentor to Gilliam. “I’ve watched various scholarships and the Sanford Hill Piano Series come to life,” says Gilliam, “and I started wondering, ‘What can I do?’”

Further inspiration came more recently via a non-Western piano student of Gilliam’s. “I’ve known him since he was a teenager,” says Gilliam. “He’s very talented but he went to one of our competitor schools in the state that gave him a full-tuition, four-year scholarship. It’s a good school and they have good facilities, but he said very complimentary things about what it’s meant for him to be able to study with me – that he would have come to Western had that been an option – and I just thought, ‘How can I make that happen for others?’ Washington is a goldmine of young piano talent: I want to do the best I can to recruit good students and give them an undergraduate education that will prepare them to go wherever they want to go after they graduate. I’ve had a good run with some fantastic students – I’ve been here since 1992 – and I’d like to ensure that that continues.”

That 23-years-and-counting run at WWU has had its impact as well: Gilliam’s pioneering scholarship will serve both as a much-needed recruitment tool for Western and as a thank you to the institution: “Western’s given me a home and a life and a great career,” says Gilliam. “When I think of what I’ve been able to do, what my students have done – I just think we have something really special going on here.” In feeling both appreciated by Western and wanting to show his appreciation in turn, Gilliam is establishing a legacy that will ultimately prove transformative for the music department, CFPA and the University as well as for the students who will receive this scholarship. It’s also a lovely gesture of faith in Western’s future, a gesture that Gilliam says, “just feels right.” Or, to quote Sibyl Sanford when Gilliam first told her about his plans: “Jeff! This is HUGE!”

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Friday, December 4, 2015 - 12:26pm