The retired Heathwood Hall Episcopal School English teacher died Saturday at his Forest Acres home after a long illness. He was 77.
The bow-tied and impeccably dressed Gasque preferred formality over informality – he addressed his students as Miss or Mr. – and railed against assaults on the English language. If students found him quirky and quaint, they also came to appreciate his passion for his chosen field.
When they learned of his passing, former students took to Facebook to remember the man who epitomized Heathwood Hall.
“I used his famous ‘memos’ about grammar, usage, syntax, and effective writing when I began my own teaching career,” Ronald Miller wrote. “This authentic gentleman inspired me to become a teacher.”
Anne Weston, Heathwood’s assistant head and director of advancement, said Gasque built the school’s English faculty into a first-rate department, but his reach over four decades went beyond the classroom.
“Jimmy’s life was our school, and I think good schools are lucky when they get a teacher who sees his or her call to not be just about the classroom,” Weston said. “He had his hand in the building of important traditions here. He did not have his own children, but everyone who passed through his classroom became his own children.”
As comfortable sharing his love of Greek mythology as his expertise with tying bow-ties, “he was one of those teachers that just cared so about the development of the young person,” she said.
Gasque loved Shakespeare and Robin Hood and read poems aloud to his classes. He wept over dangling participles and incomplete sentences, and shuddered when students interspersed “like” as a filler into casual conversations – as in, “I was, like, so happy to be at the game.” He believed that abandoning the teaching of grammar led to such linguistic horrors.
“I get mad as hell with people who don’t teach grammar anymore,” the irrepressible Gasque said in a 2009 profile in The State. “You cannot learn to use the language if you don’t know the grammar of the language.”
James Henry Gasque was born in Columbia on April 13, 1937 to James Carroll Gasque and Ruth Champion Gasque. His father ran a drugstore and soda fountain in the Shandon neighborhood.
He attended public schools, graduating from Dreher High School in 1955. Gasque was set on attending the University of North Carolina, but his father forbade his matriculation after reading a Life magazine story about Communists on the Chapel Hill campus. This was during the height of the Red Scare, Gasque noted, and there was no persuading the elder Gasque.
So he enrolled at the University of South Carolina, where he met his future wife, Betty Rader, who survives him. Upon graduation, he returned to his alma mater, Dreher High, where he taught for the next 10 years.
A lifelong Episcopalian, he joined the faculty at Heathwood in 1973 at the behest of the then-dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church. The decision fulfulled a lifelong calling, he said.
“For me, Heathwood is Camelot,” Gasque said in the 2009 profile. “When I come down the Heathwood Road, the sun is rising in front of me and when I leave, the sun is setting.”
Gasque loved to garden with his wife and took up painting in his later years. He taught until the fall of 2010 when his health began to decline. But he remained engaged in the affairs of the school.
On the 50th anniversary of his teaching, alumni, parents, former students and friends established the James H. Gasque Award for Teaching Excellence in his honor. The award is known as the Q Fellowship – he signed his memos “Q” and was affectionately known by the single initial – and provides Heathwood teachers with an opportunity for learning outside of the classroom, including overseas travel.
Weston said she visited Gasque in recent days and told him of four faculty recipients who had returned to campus and shared what they had learned.
“I was able to visit with Jimmy late that afternoon, and although he slept, I was able to hold his hand and Betty’s and talk to him about their wonderful professional development opportunities in his name,” Weston said. “Our Head of School began the meeting that afternoon with a reading from Mary Oliver, one of Jimmy’s favorite poets. It was a fitting and timely tribute to a gentleman whose legacy will shape our school for many years to come.”
Gasque’s funeral is set for 4 p.m. at the downtown cathedral where, for years, he presided as master of ceremonies for the private school’s annual graduation.