When Irish history scholar Angela Gleason '94 was hired recently by Princeton University to teach medieval history, she was also asked to teach a seminar on the history of sport. "That's like being told you have to taste-test ice cream," the former Saint Joseph's volleyball player says.
She'll also play on the departmental softball team at Princeton. After telling her she got the faculty position, the chair of the search committee at the prestigious Ivy League school mentioned that the molecular biologists had been trouncing the historians and he wondered if she would be interested in joining their team.
Gleason, grew up playing basketball and kickball with her brother and looks forward to being a sports fan at the Princeton home games this fall. She admits feeling especially content while either watching competition or competing herself. When she earned her doctorate in medieval history in 2002 from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, her dissertation on entertainment in early Ireland looked at play and sport as a social indicator.
Her scholarly enchantment with sport, however, began with a "Philosophy of Sport" course she took at Saint Joseph's, a course she says she'll never forget. "It was unquestionably the basis for my interest in the role of sport in history and culture ... Being introduced to a scholarly examination of something that already fascinated me was a delight."
The course allowed Gleason to "look at sport as a social construct, as an aspect that is every bit as important to a culture as its art or politics or economy." When she eventually approached her academic supervisor at Trinity with the idea for her Ph.D. topic, "It raised some eyebrows." But she was given the green light and she's been researching the topic in one way or another ever since.
After growing up in rural Maine not far from Rockland, Gleason originally chose Saint Joseph's because she immediately felt at home here. She considered Holy Cross, Tufts and Boston College, but didn't like the feel of those campuses. Even now she says where she lives is perhaps even more important than what she's doing.
The choice of Saint Joseph's turned out to be a good one. Not only did she love the setting, she received tremendous support from professors, coaches and staff. "There were never office hours," she says. "The door was always open."
While she pursued a double major in history and philosophy, she managed the softball team and played volleyball. Encouraged by her philosophy professor, Paul Young, she applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Germany studying history and German. At the suggestion of a professor there, she then enrolled for graduate work at Trinity College, and went on to teach there for several years, as well.
Dr. Michael Connolly, one of Gleason's former history professors at Saint Joseph's, has followed her progress with great interest. "Angie always struck me as possessing an intense determination to succeed," he says. Connolly, who also studied in Dublin, adds, "Angie is well on her way now, especially with this appointment at Princeton .... The sky is the limit for her, and she deserves it. We're very proud of her."
Besides the history of sport, Gleason was fascinated by the Dark Ages, especially the Vikings and other barbarians. As part of her dissertation, she embraced Celtic languages like Old and Middle Irish - languages that, although no longer spoken, are found in hundreds of ancient Irish texts.
Her extensive knowledge of these languages means she can examine sources not many others can understand. But her interest in Celtic languages went beyond dutiful, and she now admits she couldn't live without the study of languages. "If there's a bloodline to society, it's language," she states.
Her post-doctoral research at Trinity included the social and cultural history of medieval Ireland, with an emphasis on the early vernacular of legal materials as indicators of family, agriculture, education, trade and entertainment. Gleason continues to be interested in the philosophy of play, especially its socio-cultural role and political evolution in medieval societies.
Her long-term research focus is the compelling link between play and national identity.
What helped her become successful? Gleason says going abroad opened up a different world. "The more you see, the more you realize what's out there," she says, claiming the obstacle of money can be overcome. "You don't settle for not going," says Gleason, who received a research scholarship from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies from 1998-2003.
However, after living outside the United States for 11 years, Gleason says it was just time to come back. "Maine has always been very important to me," she says. Her family has been in Union for more than 200 years. In fact, she grew up on a road named for one of the town's early settlers - Gleason Road.
Though initially nervous about coming back with a European perspective after so long abroad, the key was coming home to Union and to Maine. This summer, she's relished working outdoors as a dock master at Journey's End Marina in Rockland and playing coed softball. It's a long way from Princeton and a long way from a post-doctoral fellowship at the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. But as she says, "I will always feel
comfortable here no matter how long I'm away."
Angie Gleason ’94 chats with her former history professor, Michael Connolly, during a recent visit to campus.
Gleason's mother, who went to college for just one year, influenced her intellectually a great deal. "I don't think I ever heard her say, ‘I don't know,'" Gleason recalls. "If she didn't know, or even if she did, it was always, ‘Go look it up and tell me what you find.'" Even Gleason's grandmother was adamant about the importance of education. "Crossing the threshold of her house always meant calling out a few state capitals or some such thing.
"Neither my mother nor my grandmother had the opportunities or start that I had, so in a small way I feel like I'm fulfilling something they never had the chance to," she admits.
Ironically, she was recently told by someone that she asks too many questions. To that, she replies, "I guess I still have that child's innocence that the answers are all out there, you just have to find them."