Vietnam veteran William J. Gillespie is remembered as philanthropist, dapper dresser, fun guy

By ANNE VALDESPINO | The Orange County Register | Published: December 15, 2020

SANTA ANA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — He was a community leader supporting local performing arts, a renaissance man, a dapper dresser and a fun guy with a quirky sense of humor. Friends and colleagues were remembering philanthropist William J. Gillespie who died of natural causes on Thursday, Dec. 10. A Laguna Beach resident, he was 79.

"He had quite a diverse background," said John Gunnin, a board member of the William Gillespie Foundation. "He was a Marine, and then of course he was a guy from theater, ballet, dance, he had all of these loves, and he was very generous to all of these different Orange County organizations. He had a wonderful sense of humor, very unexpected, and he really marched to his own drum," Gunnin said.

Gillespie had already given $6.6 million to Orange County arts organizations, including the Pacific Chorale, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and South Coast Repertory, when in July 2007 he decided to make a contribution of $2.5 million to the then Orange County Performing Arts Center, which today is the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The previous year Arts Orange County gave him a Helena Modjeska Community Visionary award, which honors lifetime achievements.

Gunnin said Gillespie became interested in classical music because while living in a military barracks he would hear music coming through a doorway and would slow down to listen. "The guy noticed him and Bill said, 'What is that music?' He brought Bill in, introduced him to classical music and they ended up being roommates," Gunnin said.

"The guy" became renowned American conductor Lawrence Foster. But it wasn't just music. Gillespie's performing arts interests expanded to dance and that is a large part of his legacy. He served on the board of American Ballet Theatre and was instrumental in providing funding for the ABT William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where dancers from ages 3-18 study with teachers from one of the nation's premier companies.

"He was really an angel to give so generously to build the school," said its principal, Alaine Hubert. She said Gillespie never turned down an invitation to observe classes and attend performances.

"He was like a little kid. He would be so excited," she said. "And he just had so many questions, like a very bright child who is so inquisitive about everything that's going on around him."

Gillespie got to know the faculty and kept track of students' progress. Segerstrom Center President Casey Reitz said attending a 2019 performance of "The Nutcracker" with Gillespie was memorable.

"Bill had a running commentary during the production, pointing out each and every student to us and telling us who they are, how long they have been in the program, how much they had grown as artists during that period of time," Reitz said. "His intimate knowledge of each one of those students was amazing. He was really invested in all of their lives and clearly thought of them as his family, as his children. And I know they thought the same of him. It was just so lovely."

Gillespie also supported the Pacific Symphony and was remembered in President John Forsyte's most recent blog post, "He developed a great affection for the highly spiritual works such as the Duruflé Requiem, Mahler's Second and Eighth Symphonies, and other large orchestral works. It was always a joy for me to talk about repertoire with him, send him the latest recording ... and he always expressed appreciation for the gifts of artists."

Gillespie gave to the Laguna Dance Festival, to charities such as AIDS Services Foundation, and to UC Irvine with contributions to the dance program and naming gifts to the Performance Studios at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and the Neuroscience Research Facility.

Having grown up in Santa Ana, Gillespie was a graduate of Cal Sate Long Beach. Broad interests — he studied Russian — and dedication defined him. He served a 13-month combat tour in Vietnam and became a captain.

"He didn't like to talk about that time and I sense that he silently carried some scars," Gunnin said. "He was hugely supportive of vets in his charitable giving. His military ethos was at his core. He was incredibly disciplined."

He always seemed to internalize people's needs and respond with compassion.

"Once he learned of a young man in Texas with paralyzed legs who needed a car with a lift to lead a functional life and Bill reached out to buy one for him," Gunnin said. "He just liked doing things like this."

In 1994, he founded the William Gillespie Foundation, which has supported more than 100 educational, veteran, environmental, animal care, family, elder care and artistic organizations since its inception.

Gillespie didn't need a career — his grandfather had invested early on in a friend's business which became Farmers Insurance Group — but at age 60 he learned the trade and became a funeral director at Pacific View Memorial Park & Mortuary in Corona del Mar, volunteering at first.

His interest in the business started in his late teens and early 20s, said his colleague Ruby Louis, general manager at Pacific View.

"He worked for a removal company," she said. "When people passed away, he would go and pick up the deceased and bring them into the care of the funeral home. He started pretty young in his life and then he always had a desire to do more. It wasn't until the '90s that he started working here at Pacific View."

She worked with him for 20 years, saying he was a kind person who adored his cats. "There was the Abyssinian, Tyrell, and the Savannahs, Jambo, Chigaro and Zuri. He'd often take them along on holidays to Palm Springs and referred to them as his kids, whom he spoiled rotten," she said.

But on the job, Gillespie was "so professional." "He had a great sense of humor as well, but when it came to directing services here at Pacific View, he was always spot on, carrying himself with the utmost dignity. And again, he came dressed to the best," she said.

Services for Gillespie will be private, according to a spokesperson for the home. But although it will be a small gathering, Gillespie is sure to have many more friends, colleagues and acquaintances remembering him now and always.

"He was very hip and cool," Reitz said . "He was sassy and funny and just a pleasure to be around. You just felt like you were cool when you were around him."

"He had a genuine appreciation for all that's beautiful because it wasn't just dance," said Judy Morr, Segerstrom Center executive vice president. "Look at those contributions: It was music, it was art. He was wherever the arts needed him. That's where Bill was. You would ask, and he would help you."

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