Remembering Denis Gainty, Bluegrass Virtuoso and Beloved Historian of Japan

With a weary and heavy heart, Tropics of Meta marks the loss of yet another great historian, having meditated on the tragic passing of Cliff Kuhn less than a year and a half ago. Georgia State’s Jeffrey Young offers this celebration of Denis’s rich, vivid, and too-short life.

Denis Charles Gainty was born in Saranac Lake, New York, on August 31, 1970 to Clement Joseph Gainty and Mary Kate Gainty.  He grew up in Western and Central Massachusetts spending especially joyful years in Shelburne, MA.  His close relationships with his brother Chris and his sister Caitjan were the anchors of a wonderful childhood much of which was spent exploring the outdoors.  As a boy, he excelled at his studies and music, which became a lifelong passion.

He attended college at Williams, where he majored in Geology and met his future wife Jennifer Patico.  After graduating from Williams in 1992, he taught English in Japan, the country which would become the focus of his scholarship and the place where he formed many wonderful friendships; he then moved to New York City, where he earned his M.A. in International Education from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College; and he worked as a teacher and administrator for the Morristown Beard School in New Jersey and the Northfield Mt. Hermon School in Massachusetts.

Returning to graduate school, Denis entered the doctoral program in East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  Denis received his Ph.D. in 2007, writing his dissertation under the direction of Cameron Hurst.  Joining the faculty at the Department of History at Georgia State University that year, he quickly became a standout scholar and teacher.  His research explored Japanese identity; his book, Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan, was published by Routledge Press in 2013, earning high praise from reviewers.  Denis was past-president and secretary of the Southeast World History Association and was working, as a second book project, on a history of bluegrass music in Japan. His courses at Georgia State were hugely popular with students, whom Denis delighted in mentoring.  In his classrooms and in his writing, Denis offered deep insights into topics as seemingly diverse as samurai and fiddle tunes.  His teaching revealed surprising and essential insights into the ways that people form their identities in the modern world.

Denis was an incredibly talented musician who played a variety of instruments including mandolin, guitar, fretless electric bass, and fiddle. While in high school, Denis formed a rock band, Equinox, with his brother, Chris; in college, the two continued their musical exploits in The Running Bean.  Later, his passion for bluegrass led him to form Elixir with Chris Kinabrew and to collaborate with a host of musicians who became Denis’s close friends in the early 1990s.  He played in groups in Boston, New York and Osaka. In 2009, he began jamming with members of a Decatur group, the Porch Bottom Boys.  He soon joined the band and focused on mandolin, with Denis describing his mandolin style as reflecting his “eclectic musical influences and misspent youth.”  His unparalleled passion, technical skill, and creativity drove the band to new heights, and band performances featured many of Denis’s striking originals plus his rich vocal leads and harmonies. Denis was also frequently recruited to perform with several other Atlanta area bands. Audiences loved him and his music.

Making friends wherever he went, Denis was the anchor of many social circles.  With his dog Wilbur, Denis was a fixture at the Oakhurst dog park; with his mandolin and fiddle and guitar, he was frequently sighted making music on porches and in taverns throughout Atlanta and around the world; his close friends from GSU delighted in the stories and wisdom that he dispensed at Friday afternoon sessions at Augustine’s; his Decatur friends applauded the theories he concocted while playing pool on Wednesday nights at Trackside.  He will be sorely missed by these and so many other communities.

A man of incredibly wide-ranging interests and talents, Denis most of all defined himself through his relationships with his family.  He cherished his memories of his father, Clement.  His special bond with his sister, Caitjan, was a lifelong source of strength and meaning for him.  He adored and doted on his wonderful mother, Mary Kate.  And his love for and friendship with his brother, Chris, knew no bounds.

His relationship with Jennifer Patico carried him around the world. He and Jennifer lived in New York City, St. Petersburg, Russia, Denville, New Jersey, Northfield, Massachusetts, and Haverford, Pennsylvania, before settling in Decatur and finding work at Georgia State.  The two welcomed into the family their daughter Eliza Catherine in 2005 and their son William Clement in 2008.  The marriage ending in 2015, Denis took great pride in continuing to collaborate closely with Jennifer in their parenting relationship for their amazing children.  Whether jointly presenting with Eliza a lecture on World War II at Renfroe Middle School or joyfully encouraging Clem’s burgeoning soccer talent, Denis found his greatest happiness in his love for his daughter and son.

Cherished father, son, brother, and friend, he leaves behind a legacy of joy and caring. We will always cherish his truly keen intellect, his repertoire of fantastic stories, the music that sparkled with his wit and love, and his boundless dedication to the people around him.

Rest in peace, dearest Denis.

Jeffrey Young is a senior lecturer in the History Department at Georgia State University. His research focuses on American slavery and Southern politics and culture. He has written Domesticating Slavery: The Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 1999) and Proslavery and Sectional Thought in the Early South: An Anthology (University of South Carolina Press, 2004).

Information about the commemoration of Denis’s life can be found here.