Allan D. Gilmour ’52 receives the 2018 John Phillips Award

LGBTQ rights advocate and former Ford Motor Company executive is honored for his work on behalf of inclusion.

Nicole Pellaton
October 26, 2018
Play VideoAllan Gilmour

In a moving assembly today, Allan Gilmour spoke about his experiences as a gay man, a corporate executive, a student and an advocate for civil rights. With humor and grace, Gilmour told Exonians how “dumbfounded and humbled,” he was to receive the award.

Gilmour related his experience growing up on a dairy farm in a small town in Vermont where he was the top student of the 50 in his school. Starting at Exeter as an incoming upper, he said, “I was scared stiff. I was trying to move from the bush leagues of academia to the major league all-stars. They say you can’t cross a chasm except in a single leap. I proved them wrong because I fell right to the bottom.” Appreciative laughter rippled through Assembly Hall.

Exeter teachers helped him succeed and graduate with honors. English Instructor D’arcy Curwen came in for particular praise as the teacher who exposed him to great literature and also gave him a sense of perspective. One day, he recounted, after receiving a note of “Not bad” on an English paper, he asked Curwen what that meant. “Not good,” was the answer.

“Exeter was the best school I ever attended. Period.” said Gilmour.

Trustee Ciatta Baysah '97 congratulates Gilmour as Interim Principal Bill Rawson looks on.

Gilmour worked at Ford Motor Company for 34 years, rising up through the automaker’s ranks, ultimately serving as vice chairman. It was not until his retirement that Gilmour came out as gay. He explained to the students that his announcement was somewhat unintentional. A local paper ran an interview with Gilmour and his partner, Eric Jirgens. When national media picked up the story, Gilmour and Jirgens decided “to make lemonade out of lemons,” and continued to share their story publicly as a means of advocating for LGBTQ rights. As part of their work, they founded the HOPE Fund, a technical assistance program that strengthens organizations that serve the LGBTQ community. Gilmour has continued to serve in other ways: as chairman of the Henry Ford Health System, in corporate governance roles at half a dozen Fortune 500 companies, as interim president of Wayne State University and at the Foundation for Detroit’s Future.

Gilmour encouraged Exonians to work to improve the world and support each other. “It’s easy these days to despair about our democratic system,” he said, “but we can do three things.” First, he said, work to fix the system. Second, work with businesses and NGOs to make sure they don’t discriminate, and support the efforts they do make. And finally, work right here at Exeter to understand your fellow students, to value each other.

At the end of assembly, students gave Gilmour an award of their own making: a standing ovation.

Inaugurated in 1965 at the behest of the Academy Trustees and the Executive Committee of the General Alumni Association, the John Phillips Award recognizes and honors Exonians whose lives and contributions to the welfare of community, country and humanity exemplify the nobility of character and usefulness to society that John and Elizabeth Phillips sought to promote in establishing the Academy.

At today's assembly, Interim Principal Bill Rawson announced a change for next year  it will henceforth be named the John and Elizabeth Phillips Award.