JOLIET – University of St. Francis Director of Athletics Dave Laketa said there was one reason he talked to Gordie Gillespie about returning to USF for the 2006 season to begin a second stint as the Saints’ baseball coach.
Those who guessed he wanted the school to win as many games as possible would be missing of the essence of Gordie.
“I wanted to bring him back so our student-athletes could experience what all those others had through the years,” Laketa said. “It was not about winning more games. It was to give those young men the opportunity to learn from him about becoming leaders, fathers and good community people.”
Gillespie died Saturday night at age 88. Visitation will be from 2 to 9 p.m. Thursday at New Covenant Church on Mills Road. Rest assured, hundreds of Gordie stories will be shared.
All Gillespie did in 59 years of coaching at Lewis, Joliet Catholic and St. Francis was win 2,402 games in baseball, basketball and football. He coached in 110 sports seasons at high levels, a record that likely never will be touched.
And yet, whenever Gillespie is discussed, everyone gets back to the thought that it is not about wins and losses. He had a remarkable record, but what mattered most were the relationships he built.
“That’s the most important thing,” said Pat Sullivan, who played at Lewis for Gillespie and later worked hand-in-hand with him in the athletic department at St. Francis. “His records will never be touched. They’re incredible. Yet the most important thing is that none of that matters. His impact on people far exceeds all of that.”
“I’ll run into people who played football for Gordie 20 years ago,” said Tom Kennedy, who played basketball and baseball for Gillespie at Lewis in the late 1950s and early 1960s and retired from Regis College in Denver after a long career in administration there.
“I’ll tell them I played for Gordie, too, and they have that smile. It’s that bond that people just have when they have played for him. He is the most fascinating person I ever met.”
Talking with Gillespie has been described as a mirror-like experience. Sullivan said if you tried to talk to him about his coaching successes, he invariably reflected the conversation right back to you. He was that humble of a person.
“In our 25 years together, we had thousands of conversations,” Sullivan said. “Never once did I hear him talk about his prowess as a coach.”
The handwritten thank-you and congratulatory notes that have marked Sullivan’s illustrious career also were a Gillespie staple.
“Just for me to be able to say I knew Gordie, I feel that I am the luckiest man in the world,” said Saint Xavier football coach Mike Feminis, a member of USF’s first football team when Gillespie began the program in 1986. “I’ve been going over some letters he wrote to me – hand-written letters. He absolutely cared about us.”
He had good penmanship, too.
“My daughters are used to seeing my scratching,” Feminis said. “They were looking at some of Gordie’s letters with me, and they commented on the nice handwriting he had.”
Feminis feels he owes everything to Gillespie; and Dan Sharp, Joliet Catholic’s football coach and athletic director, expressed the same sentiments. He, like Feminis, is a former assistant on Gillespie’s staff at USF.
“Gordie is the only reason I am doing what I am doing,” Sharp said. “He inspired me in this profession and in life.”
Gillespie’s final coaching act, after he had retired from USF baseball the second and last time after the 2011 season, was to provide assistance to Sharp in the JCA football program. Whenever possible, he was on the sidelines offering his expertise.
Through the years, Sharp occasionally was referred to as “a little Gordie” or “another Gordie.” His feelings?
“It was an unbelievable compliment,” he said. “I shrugged it off, but just to be mentioned in the same sentence with him meant everything.”