JOLIET – It seemed everyone related to Joliet athletics – past and present – streamed Thursday into the New Covenant Community Church on Thursday to honor Gordie Gillespie.
The 88-year-old Joliet sports legend died Saturday after a long illness. Barely an hour into the start of the late coach’s wake, which lasted from 2 to 9 p.m. Thursday, a long line had formed within the church lobby to offer condolences to the Gillespie family.
Among those waiting was Les Norman, a Braidwood native who first met Gillespie in the late 1980s upon receiving a scholarship to play football and baseball at the University of St. Francis.
Norman said he arrived at USF as an “angry teen” with a troubled childhood, but emerged after three seasons a different person, because of Gillespie’s coaching and guidance.
“Gordie lassoed me in pretty quick,” Norman said. “He was everything you ever wanted or needed in a friend. He encompassed it all: He was a father-figure. A disciplinarian. A coach.
“Everything he did, he did out of love,” Norman added. “He would be the first person to tell you we all make mistakes. He was a good person and he taught by example.”
A Chicago native who starred in DePaul University basketball, Gillespie arrived in Joliet in 1950.
In the 65 years since, he brought community sports to heights never imagined, whether coaching Joliet Catholic football, Lewis basketball or baseball, or St. Francis baseball, football or women’s basketball.
Gillespie retired from coaching in 2010 with a combined record of 2,402 victories against 1,170 losses and eight ties in the three sports.
Pete Coorlas, a longtime friend, sat in the middle rows of family and friends, reminiscing about the nearly 80-year friendship he shared with Gillespie. Coorlas, Gillespie and George Leddy, also deceased, were known as “The Big Three,” he said. The trio played basketball together at DePaul University.
“We always stuck together. You’d always see the three of us next to each other,” said Coorlas, who first met Gillespie on the grade school basketball court.
“He wanted to play with us. We said, ‘Oh, look at that little, skinny guy.’ We felt sorry for him,” Coorlas joked.
One of Gillespie’s seven children, Margaret Mary, said she and her family were overwhelmed, but not surprised, by the droves of people who came to the wake. “Sharing her father” was never a problem, she said.
“It’s amazing to be able to experience the stories and love from everyone,” she said. “Everyone’s thanking us, and apologizing to us, for taking our dad away from us. But I tell them, ‘You don’t understand. We gained more brothers. We gained more sisters.’ Each one of them became family.”
Two years ago, the family started a “Letters to Gordie Gillespie” Facebook page so people could offer the coach birthday wishes, she said. Since news broke of his death Saturday, the page has tallied nearly 15,000 posts from former players, coaches, family and friends, she said.