June 15, 2024

Geography Professor Donald Rallis Retires

A portrait of Nelson Mandela hung on the wall of Donald Rallis’s office for most of his 23 years at Mary Washington.  In and of itself, this fact does not distinguish Donald from academics across the world. Mandela’s name and face were symbols of the anti-apartheid movement that galvanized college campuses in the late 1970s and 1980s and many faculty and students have embraced Mandela as a symbol of freedom and justice. Yet, Donald’s choice of office decoration symbolizes aspects of his character and accomplishments that deserve notice as we mark his retirement after 23 years as a teacher, mentor, and colleague.

Donald grew up in apartheid South Africa and had access to the privileges and wealth that system afforded members of his race. Yet, by the time he arrived at the University of Witwatersrand in the late 1970s, Donald’s sense of justice ensured he became a student activist against apartheid. Upon earning his bachelors of science in geography in 1982, he left South Africa to avoid compulsory service in a military charged with the preservation of a racist state. He then earned his master’s degree at the University of Miami before completing his doctorate at the Pennsylvania State University.

In 1990, Donald arrived at Mary Washington College – a smaller, quieter, and less diverse institution than UMW is today. He developed courses in third world development and world cities and, throughout his time here, encouraged students to transcend American parochialism and open up to the diversity of our world. In all of his classes, he asked students to understand that overcoming political, social, and economic injustice required both perseverance and the acquisition of knowledge. At the same time, his students learned that geography provides an approach to obtaining that knowledge. Carole Gallagher ’91 took courses in urban and economic geography with Donald during his first year at MWC. Now an associate professor of geography at American University, Carole writes, “Donald probably doesn’t know it, but he is the reason I went to grad school. He opened my eyes to  the openness of geography as a way of doing research.”

During Donald’s first years at MWC, momentous changes occurred in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and years of struggle, protest, and international pressure led to the negotiations that ended apartheid. Donald quickly organized a summer study abroad program so that MWC students could experience these events and learn about his home country.  Patty Mims ’92, a participant in the first of these programs, states that “the cultural and geographic experiences we had in South Africa enlightened me to hope, struggles for equality, and the ability of people to always make the best of every situation.” A few years later, Donald included the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton on the South African field program’s itinerary. By chance, Nelson Mandela was completing his morning walk as Donald and his students passed his residence.  Mandela stopped to shake hands with the entire group providing our students with a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

For Donald, the pursuit of social justice cannot be separated from teaching and learning. He also believes that college campus must be safe spaces for all members of the community to explore different perspectives and be true to our identities. Donald had been open about his sexuality in South Africa and as a graduate student in the U.S., but upon his arrival at Mary Washington friends cautioned him against making his identity as a gay man widely known. When the Clinton administration established its infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the armed services, however, Donald felt compelled to speak out. His 1993 op-ed in the Bullet, which began with the words, “I am gay and I am angry,” led to a forum on homosexuality organized by Professor Pat Metzger for her seminar on equality.

Richard Russo ’93 recalls, “Can anyone who was there forget the electric Stageberg-Rallis ‘Great Debate’ on homosexuality?  The forum that was to take place in the Monroe Hall auditorium was moved to Dodd Auditorium to accommodate the over 1,000 people who came to listen. I remember the excitement as the crowd moved down Campus Walk as if it were yesterday!”  (go here for more of Richard’s thoughts on Donald’s retirement). Richard cites Donald’s public courage as giving him the strength to embrace his own identity and to stand proud as a gay man – a sentiment shared by Matthew Michaelson ’97.  Jeff McClurken ’94 remembers that fellow students reconsidered their own homophobia in the wake of this event and fully credits Donald with moving Mary Washington along the path to becoming a welcoming place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students.

During his 23 years at Mary Washington, Donald taught thousands of students and created field programs in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and Cambodia. His ability to draw insights about culture from even the most mundane landscapes inspired students to explore the world and become geographers – whether they majored in the subject or not. He integrated web-based technologies into his classes in the 1990s and remains at the vanguard in utilizing blogs, discussion boards, and YouTube to take his classes out into the world and to bring the world into our classrooms. Donald’s blog site, regionalgeography.org, is utilized by faculty and students around the world. We hope he will continue to inspire Mary Washington students by teaching online classes and, perhaps, by leading field programs in Cambodia, where he has joined the faculty of the American University of Phnom Penh. Please join the entire UMW Geography Department in wishing him every success.