Students call her “Coach” or “Mom” or “Miss Gills.” They’re all fans of Professor Paula Gills, Norwich University’s Director of Learning Support Services. And there are many of them.

Omar A. Connor, for instance, a former Norwich football player who graduated in 1998 and is now a police officer in Lunenburg, Mass.

“If it weren’t for Miss Gills, I wouldn’t have graduated and I wouldn’t have a job,” he says. “She’s my guardian angel.”

Connor came to Norwich with two learning disabilities – attention deficit disorder and dyslexia – and Gills helped him learn to handle them better, he says. But even more important, she helped him deal with low self-esteem.

“I put myself down,” he says, “and I didn’t have much self-confidence. She always encouraged me to assert myself and to not give up. She pushed me and made me see that I could do it.”

There were times, Connor says, when he thought about quitting school.

“Then I’d go sit in the office with Mom,” he says, “and, after that, I’d feel like a million bucks.”

He wasn’t the only one, Connor is quick to add. “Miss Gills cares about every student there (at Norwich). She will extend her arms and her heart to everyone. She’s like your mom away from home.”

Shawn McIntyre, Norwich’s head football coach, can attest to that, both as a Norwich student – he graduated in 1998 -- and as a coach who regularly sends his recruits to Gills.

“Paula is one of the most amazing people on this campus,” McIntyre says. “She has helped a number of athletes through Norwich. We turn to Coach Gills extensively.”

Officially, Gills is the academic coach for the football team but, unofficially, she is the academic coach for all the University’s teams.

“I get to know the students athletically as well as academically,” Gills says. “Like any coach, I help them if they’re having trouble with performing. The skills are the same: managing time, showing up on game day having studied and being prepared to play. I’m no different than any other coach.”
Norwich not in her plans

Nearly 30 years ago, however, Gills had no intention of coming to Vermont, much less Norwich University in Northfield. A Midwesterner, she was happily ensconced in an English teaching job in Illinois when a chance trip to visit a friend in Northfield changed her life.

Her introduction to Northfield was fairly abrupt. One day, as she was teaching, the police pulled her out of class and suggested she take a trip “to the furthest place I knew.” They thought a student of hers might try to kill her--it turned out she was not in danger--and they suggested she leave while they investigated. She visited a friend in Northfield and fell in love with the place.

“I saw the mountains for the first time and thought this was the most beautiful place in the world,” Gills says. In 1977, she quit her teaching job and moved to Vermont.

A long-time folk musician, Gills also decided it was time to try to make a living as a singer. She had been singing, playing guitar and composing songs since she was in high school in suburban Detroit, where she grew up. She was part of a folk group there as well as the lead singer for a rock and roll band.

“This was the '60s and folk music was blossoming,” Gills says. “I was listening to Peter, Paul and Mary and the Weavers on the radio.”

Gills continued performing as she pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Michigan State University. She played at several coffee houses in East Lansing and – her claim to fame, she says – opened for a concert by folk singer Josh White, Jr. When she graduated, however, she thought teaching was probably a more realistic career and took the job in Illinois.

Life was not easy in the first few years Gills lived in Northfield. She got a bunch of gigs, she says, but “I was living in a garret apartment with no central heating and I ate a lot of scrambled eggs and cottage cheese.”

She eventually made an album with Green Mountain Records in 1978, but performing wasn’t bringing in enough to earn a living. She took on other part-time jobs, including housecleaning, hosting a classical music program on WNCS radio in Montpelier and tutoring in Norwich’s study skills center (now called Learning Support Services).

Her part-time job at Norwich became full-time in 1980. When the director of the center left, Gills was named interim director and, in 1988, became director.

Practical joke lands her a job

In addition to directing Learning Support Services and her “coaching” duties, Gills also sings the national anthem at home games for hockey, football, and women’s and men’s basketball. It all started in the early 1990s when the new coach for the women’s basketball team asked Gills if she knew anyone who might sing “The Star Spangled Banner” live at the opening game.

Known as somewhat of a practical joker, Gills said she was an OK singer, she sang in the church choir, she could carry a tune, maybe she could help out. She added: “If I embarrass you, we just won’t do it again.”

Later, Gills, who had never sung the national anthem in public before, wondered if she had made a mistake. But when she got there, “Someone handed me a mic and I just let it rip. The coach had tears in her eyes and was staring daggers at me at the same time. After the game, she told me I had just earned myself a job. So I started singing at every home women’s basketball game.”

In the late ‘90s, when the Kreitzberg Arena opened, the hockey team asked Gills if she would sing for their home games. “I said I kind of belong to the women,” Gills said. “So the captains of the hockey team went to the captains of the women’s team and asked their permission for me to sing at their games. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Pretty soon, Gills was singing live for the men’s basketball team as well. She has been known to sing at as many as five games in one week. But only once has there been a conflict, she says.

Anthony Mariano, athletic director at Norwich, says Gills is valued for both her academic and musical contributions. “Paula is not only one of Norwich’s biggest sports fans, she is a true supporter of Norwich athletics. She works year-round with our athletes helping them with academic problems they encounter. She is truly concerned about not only the academic welfare of our students but also their social and emotional welfare. On top of all that, she also gives back to athletics by providing her beautiful voice to sing at many of our athletic events. Norwich is extremely fortunate to have her as a member of our university community.”

Men’s basketball coach Paul Booth echoes Mariano. “Paula is an unbelievable lady. She puts an amazing amount of energy and time into helping students succeed. I take all my recruits to meet Paula. She’s remarkable in her commitment to seeing kids develop and succeed as students. She’s been really terrific for the basketball program and for the school as a whole.”

Revival of personal singing

Gills’ personal singing had been on the back burner since she started working full-time in 1980, but it took a surprising turn last fall when, in what she attributes to “divine inspiration,” she wrote a song titled “A Soldier’s Carol.” Many of her former students are in the military, and the song was written as a Christmas card for soldiers who wouldn’t be home for the holiday.

The song “flowed like water,” Gills says, “which is very unusual for me. A couple of people heard it and said we had to get it out.”

She ended up making a CD, being interviewed by several radio and television stations, and getting many responses from alumni, soldiers and their family members. “I even got a letter from a retired soldier in California,” she says.

People started asking Gills when she was going to make a full-length CD and, this July, nearly 30 years after her first album in 1978, she will record a full-length CD. All the songs are original except one written by a friend who died of cancer. She describes the CD as eclectic folk.

Does she have thoughts of returning to singing full-time? No way, she says.

“To perform, I’d have to give up something here. It’s not as important as my work in the learning center and singing the anthem at the games. I know what I do matters to the kids and their parents.

“What the student athletes do is so important and visible for Norwich. Just to be a little part of that is a great honor. What I get out of it – well, you can’t buy it, you can’t bottle it. I’m the lucky one.”

Paula Gills is married to Ted Richards, Professor Emeritus of English at Norwich University. Members of the Partridge Society's 1819 Circle, they each received the Honorary Alumnus award in 2005.