JOLIET – Mark Parker asked Gordie Gillespie’s former players, family members and others at the coach’s celebration of life ceremony Saturday afternoon to close their eyes and remember Gillespie’s voice.
“He could hold a room of thousands of his peers at bay, sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for the next word just by his voice,” said Parker, who played for Gillespie’s teams at Joliet Catholic High School, now Joliet Catholic Academy.
For many in attendance at Saturday’s celebration inside University of St. Francis Pat Sullivan Center, Gillespie’s voice was focused on others, not himself.
“You wouldn’t be where you are today because of how he connected with you,” said Gillespie’s daughter, Margaret Mary Gillespie. “That’s what he did with all of us.”
Gillespie died Feb. 28 after a legendary career over 65 years in which he had a combined sports record of 2,402 victories against 1,170 losses and eight ties. He coached football, baseball and basketball at Joliet Catholic Academy, University of St. Francis, Lewis University and Ripon College in Wisconsin.
Fast driver, good father
One of Gillespie’s former players and good friends, Tony Delgado, said Gillespie had both political correctness and incorrectness covered.
Gillespie would often tell each of his kids that he or she was his favorite kid. He had several nicknames for his kids and players.
“I humbly must admit that Dad often referred to me as his favorite son,” Gordie Jr., or “Goose,” said, as people in the audience laughed.
Mary, Gordie Jr. and two of Gillespie’s other children, Bob Gillespie and Mike Gillespie, said their father wasn’t just a legendary coach on the field, but his ideals permeated through his 11 children and stepchildren, 40 grandchildren and 42 great-grandchildren.
“As great a coach he was, he was a better person,” Mike said.
Gillespie’s wife, Joan Gillespie, said Gordie was humble and proud of what his players, family and friends did.
“If there was any pride in Gordie it was in what they did, not what he did,” she said. “He loved you all with a heart that was bigger than life.”
Gillespie had a knack for identifying how to motivate his players.
Joliet Catholic head football coach Dan Sharp remembered a game he coached with Gillespie in which the opposing team was known for playing dirty and would throw cheap shots. The team’s fullback didn’t know it, and Gillespie, then the head coach, called a play.
The fullback got heated after the rough after-play activities, and Gillespie called the same play. The fullback got more angry. Then Gillespie called the play again. And he called it again.
The fullback took the ball and flew 50 yards down the field.
After Sharp asked him why he was calling the same play over again, Gillespie said, “Danny, the lad was motivated.”
Sharp said he kept in touch with Gillespie late in his life, and that Gordie was still drawing up plays.
“But he always liked to laugh,” said Sharp, who earned the nickname “Not so” Sharp by Gillespie.
Tom Kennedy said he started out as a first baseman under Gillespie. But he ended up playing multiple positions and multiple sports, primarily because of Gillespie’s confidence in abilities Kennedy didn’t know he had.
“Gordie’s torch was so bright, it would make the Chicago Fire look dim,” Kennedy said. “The Chicago Fire went out, but Gordie’s light did not go out because he passed it on to ... everybody.”
Friends, family and parishioners also attended a memorial Mass Saturday morning at the Cathedral of St. Raymond preceding the celebration.
The Rev. Timothy Andres spoke of his own experience with Gillespie, who welcomed him when he came to Joliet.
“He is one of the great coaches in the history of this country, but Gordie could probably never tell you how many victories he had,” Andres said, using Gillespie as a role model who had no problem winning, but was even more successful teaching lessons.
Gillespie’s daughter Billie Schimanski-Lipke thanked those who attended the Mass and showered affection on her father. She also addressed the family, telling each member how they remind her of Gillespie.
Billie said in his last few weeks, Gillespie had the ability to tell the whole family he loved them and to say goodbye. She said he also focused on how his grandchildren were doing.
“His thoughts were always about others and not himself,” she said. “So here’s to a good man, my dad, the life that he lived, the hearts that he touched, the legacy he left behind in all of us.
“You are loved and you will be missed.”