Melanie Gillan and the Young Athenians Fund
A Tribute and Discovery of the Athenian Within
by Stefanie Sanford, Melanie Gillan's sister
The first question we get: “What are Athenians and why did we name our sister's scholarship fund after them?”
We have been asked that a lot. When Sharon Davis, Assistant Principal at Briarhill Middle School , first came to me and suggested a scholarship fund in Mel's memory, I went to my library for inspiration. It was there I found an essay that had been one of my favorites in graduate school – and one I had shared with Mel when I first discovered it around the time her twins were born.
The essay eloquently observed something that many of us, including Melanie as she raised her daughters and taught her students, sense – that as an educator, she was often pushing up stream. Because so many influences seem to stand in the way of real learning and true connection among people, those forces often diminish or trivialize the very things we value most. This essay characterized it as a contemporary battle between the descendents of two historical bands of people: the Athenians and the Visigoths, characterized as those who seek knowledge only as a means to an end to earn money and gain power.
“The Athenians lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece; in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight, and they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. About 2,000 years ago, the vitality of their culture declined and these people began to disappear - but not what they had created.
Their imagination, art, politics, literature, and language spread all over the world so that, today, it is hardly possible to speak on any subject without repeating what some Athenian said on the matter 2,500 years ago…to be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question -- these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform.
To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind's most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience.”
Mel was an Athenian herself, and more than anyone I know, she worked to make her children Athenians. She wanted very much for her students to be Athenians too, for Mel knew very well the corrosive effects Visigoths could have on the souls of young people.
As Mel's husband David, middle sister Jaye, and I mulled over the criteria for her scholarship, we talked about these Athenian qualities. She saw these qualities manifested in her students and worked diligently to give them the tools and habits of mind to push back against the modern-day Visigoths. David reminded us how she loved the strivers and the young artists – those who didn't always fit in, get the top grades, or excel in traditional ways. She took joy in discovering them and helping them uncover their gifts and passions – the Athenian diamonds in the rough.
So we endowed this scholarship with that concept in mind. Aiming to make it one of the largest available from LEF and targeting those young people who might not receive other scholarships, our hope is that these funds will make a difference, perhaps between going to college or not or pursuing one's dreams or not. And in doing so, we would be contributing to the Athenian ideals of preserving art, music, and eloquence – all of which would make Melanie proud.
To learn how you can establish a scholarship fund with the Lewisville ISD Education Foundation in honor or memory of a loved one, please contact our offices at 469-948-2022 or email Connie Pelphrey, Executive Director, at