Sheila Gibson, PhD, professor of philosophy at HNU, and her husband, Phillips Gibson ’73, recently gave a gift to HNU in memory of former HNU philosophy professor Richard Yee, PhD. Yee taught at HNU from 1961 to 1998, when he retired and was named professor emeritus. He passed away in March 2014.
Gibson originally met Yee at the University of Toronto, where they were both doctoral students in philosophy. Yee was a few years ahead of Gibson, and, as she recalled, Yee had an air of sophistication about him. “He was always very poised, a man of the world,” Gibson said. “I was very green when I came in [to the University of Toronto] and he was wonderful—I went to an opera with him in Toronto once, and it was nice to have someone help you get to know the big city.”
Like many other HNU faculty and alumni, Yee’s journey to Holy Names was not exactly linear. Gibson explained that Yee grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown as the child of immigrants, and did not start to learn English until the eighth grade, when a teacher assigned him the essays of Montaigne to read. He attended Lowell High School in San Francisco and went to college at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. After graduation, Yee went on to pursue his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Toronto, where he studied medieval philosophy and wrote his dissertation on Pietro Pomponazzi, a 16th century Italian philosopher.
When his father suffered a stroke in 1961, Yee decided he wanted to be closer to his family to help care for his father. His family still lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown, so Yee took a teaching job at Holy Names College.
As Gibson said, “He was very young when he came to HNU, in his early 20s, and he was one of the first men who wasn’t a priest to teach at Holy Names. He brought in something very different. He was younger, Chinese-American, he’d begun to travel the world, had a passion for opera, so he was very interesting to the students at the time. He was very well spoken—he spoke quickly and clearly and he would roll his eyes and he had a sense of irony that you wouldn’t believe. While he was deeply intellectual in some of his pursuits, as a teacher he was basically an enthusiast and couldn’t see why anybody else would not become excited about anything that he was talking about. Before anybody started talking about pedagogical methods, he just did those things naturally. So he was a brilliant teacher right from the start.”
While here, Yee was “Mr. Holy Names,” as Gibson put it. He taught many different philosophy courses, served on faculty committees, started the first senior colloquium based on food and cooking, and helped establish the forerunner of the Integrative Studies Across Cultures (ISAC) program. To celebrate the Chinese New Year parade, Yee often invited faculty and a few students over for a dinner party at his apartment, where he cooked food for everyone. He also brought Chinese opera performances to campus, organizing the performances and managing the opera singers (who, per Gibson, took much of their direction from Yee, since Chinese opera relies a great deal on improvisation and the choices made by the directors and performers regarding which scenes to emphasize).
Gibson mentioned that after Yee had been at HNU for 15 or 20 years, there was a shift in his interests. As Gibson told it, while Yee remained an expert in medieval and Western philosophy, he devoted much of his personal attention to Eastern and Chinese philosophy. “He learned it on the ground,” Gibson said. “He never studied it in his scholarly life but he began teaching courses in Zen and existentialism and Chinese art and philosophy. When his father died, it was a real kind of shake-up in his life; he wrote a beautiful essay called “Passing of my Confucian Father,” [ed. note: the essay appears in the January 9, 1983 issue of California Living, the magazine of the San Francisco Examiner] because he recognized in his father a scholar who had come here and who then worked in a laundry for years and years.”
Even after his retirement in 1998, Yee gave many guest lectures at HNU on Chinese art and philosophy. Gibson said, “I still have notes of the lectures he gave. When I teach that class, I try to recreate the lecture he gave, which is impossible because it was full of jokes and different stories every time. But he always taught people at least 10 different Chinese characters with the idea that if you understood the importance of the pictographic and idiographic language as opposed to alphabetic, you would begin to understand Chinese civilization. It’s the thing that really binds all the different dialects in China—having a written language like that. So that’s how he would concretize our understanding of Chinese civilization.”
Gibson explained that she and her husband made the gift in memory of Yee because they wanted to pay tribute to him. “I’ve been trying to remember him, and we have,” she said. “We talk about him a lot.” Gibson supports HNU because, as she put it, “It’s home. And besides wanting to support things that I think are essential, I’m grateful because I’ve met so many people here who have been important in my life.”