June 22, 1934 - January 28, 2021
SPARTANBURG, SC- On Thursday, January 28, 2021, Dr. James R. Gross left his mortal confines and returned, as he described in his own words, "to earth and air." He died at the Spartanburg Regional Hospice Home, but he had been in declining health and was living at White Oak at North Grove in Spartanburg for the last several years. Dr. Gross was a giant in the Wofford College community, where he began teaching in the English Department in 1966. He was hugely beloved by students and colleagues, and hundreds of his former students, many with whom he remained close, were deeply inspired, motivated, and goaded to their full potential by him. Dr. Gross will live in their hearts, minds, and souls for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Gross was born and grew up in his family home located on the banks of Sandy Creek and the Boone Trail Way in Sanford, North Carolina. He was reared by his loving parents, Richard Bailey Gross and Margaret Wicker Gross. He graduated from Sanford Central High School and went on to Wake Forest College, where he received a B.B.A. He then served in the United States Army and was stationed in Fort Richardson, Alaska. Following his military service, he met and married Kay Annette Horne of Barnwell, South Carolina. They had two daughters, Amy Austin Gross and Margaret Camille Gross. Dr. Gross later attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received an M.A. in English Literature and Drama; and he subsequently earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from Duke University. He spent three summers performing post-graduate work in Theatre at New York University.
Dr. Gross began his teaching career at Davidson College, where he taught English. After a couple of years at Davidson, he found his home at Wofford. He joined the English Department faculty in the Fall of 1966. He was immediately popular with students, and his classes were in high demand. Students liked his sophisticated yet understated and unpretentious manner. He had a rich baritone voice and a booming infectious laugh. His lectures were based on the Socratic method and involved probing questions and answers with students, but his wry sense of humor and self-deprecating style regularly put them at ease. They dreaded his pop quizzes, but those kept them better prepared and more conscientious. Whether analyzing the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth, Byron, or Keats, or exploring the mysteries of Joseph Conrad's complex fiction, Dr. Gross enlivened his classes and made the material relevant to his students' contemporary lives. He inspired and elevated them and challenged them to think critically and independently. Through it all, however, his students knew that he genuinely cared about them.
In the 1967-68 school year, Wofford progressively and experimentally changed its curriculum to a 4-1-4 plan, where one Interim course was offered during the month of January. That curriculum continues to this day. In that first 1968 Interim Dr. Gross taught a Theatre Workshop course. That class culminated in a series of one-act plays that included Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story"; Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape"; and Israel Horovitz's "High Sign." They were performed in Leonard Auditorium in the Old Main Building and were surprisingly well received by the Wofford and Spartanburg communities. The fuse was lit.
During the next couple of years, Dr. Gross primarily continued to teach English. However, it became increasingly clearer to him that he could no longer not do what he was destined to do-teach drama and theatre and direct plays. During the Spring semester 1970 the Wofford Theatre Workshopwas founded and its first full length play, Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party," was produced. Dr. Gross directed the play, which was performed on the "postage stamp-size" stage in the Montgomery Room of the Burwell Building. A crudely constructed thrust had to be cobbled to the stage for that production and for the others that followed until the Theatre Workshop moved to Carlisle Hall and a larger venue. In those early years Dr. Gross dismissed the complaints of his disgruntled actors about their facilities and resources, admonishing them to remember the Renaissance definition of theatre--"two boards and a passion"-and to get back to work, because "the play's the thing."
Dr. Gross eventually transitioned entirely to teaching theatre and directing plays, and in 1981 with a production of "Twelfth Night," he inaugurated the Tony White Theater in the Campus Life Building as the new home of the Wofford Theatre. After over 50 years and numerous productions, the Wofford Theatre continues to thrive today in the magnificently appointed Rosalind Sallenger Richardson Center of the Arts.
Dr. Gross retired from Wofford in 2003 as Garrison Professor of English and Theatre. He had also chaired the Wofford Fine Arts and Humanities Department. Upon his retirement, 37 cascading steps along the Liberty Trail at Wofford were named in his honor to signify the years of service he gave to the college. Throughout his time in Spartanburg Dr. Gross was an active and enthusiastic supporter of the arts. He had been on the Boards of the Spartanburg County Arts Commission, the Spartanburg Little Theatre, and the Spartanburg Ballet Guild.
In retirement Dr. Gross sought a quiet, contemplative life. He purchased a vacation home in Belle Isle, South Carolina to help with this quest. He enjoyed the serenity of his home located on the water overlooking the Winyah Bay. He would gaze at his surroundings for hours, watching intently as the anhingas and an occasional alligator graced the water next to his deck. He was also an avid traveler, and he had visited over 100 countries and numerous states domestically before he became physically unable to continue his travels. He was a most interesting, well-read and informed, and fun-loving man.
Throughout his life Dr. Gross was also a passionate supporter of civil rights and social justice causes. He was a gadfly among his colleagues and pushed the envelope to realize a better, intellectually honest college. He was creative, courageous, loving, and a true teacher in the classical sense. He provided inspiration and clarity when there was confusion and chaos. He was fiercely loyal and dedicated to his friends. He will be terribly missed in a world in need of kind men of service and ideals and icons of his stature.
Dr. Gross was predeceased by his daughter Margaret Camille Gross, and his wife, Kay Horne Gross. He is survived by his daughter Amy Austin Gross Tipton of Spartanburg.
Plans for a future Memorial Service are being planned but have not yet been finalized.
Published in Spartanburg Herald-Journal on Feb. 24, 2021.