Philanthropist Bill Gillespie was a longtime supporter of dance, music and other creative endeavors in Orange County.
By Tanya A. Yacina
When asked about the late Bill Gillespie, his dear friends and colleagues agree: He was a remarkable individual who was kind and generous to all that he loved. A Laguna Beach resident and well-known philanthropist to the arts, Gillespie died Dec. 10 at age 79.
Judy Morr, executive vice president of Segerstrom Center for the Arts, fondly remembers the little smile he would get when someone would begin to tell him about a performance that would likely capture his interest and support, and that he might want to see.
“He was such a good human being, just a good, good person,” Morr says. “You would see that little smile start and you knew he was going to get it going.”
John Gunnin, director of the William J. Gillespie Foundation, describes Gillespie as a fashionable community leader, a philanthropist and a one-of-a-kind introvert whose generosity and compassion toward other people is what he was marked by.
“He always noticed when someone needed help, but he was also very unassuming and backed away from the limelight much of the time,” Gunnin says. “They broke the mold on Bill; he really was not like anyone else I’ve ever known. He’ll be missed for his generous contributions to society.”
Gillespie walked a colorful path through life. Prior to his philanthropic endeavors, he attended military school where he met a friend who introduced him to classical music. His military discipline and love for music carried with him for the rest of his days.
Gillespie also graduated from California State University, Long Beach. In the 1960s, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, was deployed to Vietnam for 13 months and was promoted to captain. In his early 60s, he circled back to college and obtained a certificate in mortuary sciences, which enabled him to work at Pacific View Mortuary & Memorial Park in Corona del Mar for many years.
“Bill was enamored with the pageantry of funerals, and he loved the people of Pacific View—they became his family,” Gunnin shares. “It was wonderful to see him blossom in this way after he’d already done all of this philanthropic work.”
Empowering the Arts
In 1994, Gillespie created the William J. Gillespie Foundation in Newport Beach, which has supported more than 100 organizations in its time with a focus on the arts, education, veteran services, the environment, animal care, and family and elder services. Some of his most significant gifts were made to the Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, American Ballet Theatre and University of California, Irvine.
Casey Reitz, president of Segerstrom Center for the Arts, says the center couldn’t present the impressive lineup it does without generosity from people like Gillespie. “You can’t just rely on ticket sales to make a show happen. His support allowed us to be risk takers … and allowed us to bring things to the stage that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” Reitz says, adding that Gillespie was “a quiet, unassuming guy who was there for art, not the attention or accolades.”
Gunnin notes that Gillespie “came into money as a sort of surprise and [then] he gave all of his money away.” Gillespie, the grandson and heir to a founding investor in Farmers Insurance Group pledged $6.6 million to local arts organizations in May 1995, which was the largest pledge of its kind in Orange County at the time, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Since then, he gifted $7.1 million in 2007 to Segerstrom’s Building on the Vision campaign to construct the Reneé and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; he later commissioned the William J. Gillespie Concert Organ for that hall. He was also instrumental in founding the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center and served as a trustee for the American Ballet Theatre.
“Bill didn’t have one favorite—everyone was his favorite. He loved the art groups, large and small, and artists of all genres,” Morr explains. “It wasn’t a single passion that he had and it’s hard to describe, but, with Bill, it was all about beauty.”
Some of Gillespie’s other notable achievements include founding the William J. Gillespie Scholarship in Ballet Studies at the University of California, Irvine; the creation of UCI’s William J. Gillespie Performance Studios; and donating to build UCI’s William J. Gillespie Neuroscience Research Facility. He was also an early and consistent supporter of the Laguna Dance Festival.
“Bill was such a connoisseur of ballet that I had trouble following his commentary on the dancers,” Gunnin said in his eulogy after Gillespie died. “He loved not just the art of dance, but all the people involved—none more so than the many students he supported. He loved being surrounded by them. The ballet school was one of his crowning achievements.”
A Love of All Things Beautiful
“Bill was involved with Segerstrom from the very first steps—he loved dance and I loved dance and that was our immediate bond,” Morr says. “He loved everything that was beautiful: music, cars, dance [and] art. He had an enthusiasm and really cared about people, first and foremost, and he cared about what people enjoyed.”
Reitz recalls an evening that Gillespie sat next to him and his wife, Naomi, at an American Ballet Theatre production of “The Nutcracker.” He recounts that Gillespie knew every single dancer on stage and provided them with a running commentary on each of the performers throughout the show.
“He knew all the dancers’ names and their backgrounds, how much they’d improved and who they all were. It was unbelievable how invested he was in each dancer,” Reitz says.
“He was the spirit of the school, the heart and soul. He was a really meaningful person at the center and you took delight in being around him.”
Gunnin adds that Gillespie was “full of surprises and possessed an incredibly dry sense of humor.” Over time, “he became more of a flashy dresser and he would show up in some really outstanding outfits,” Gunnin recalls.
His love of all things beautiful ranged from his fashion statements to a diverse range of music and dance, which he supported through generous donations to arts organizations of all sizes, Morr says.
“If he thought he could be helpful in bringing art to the world, he would,” she says. “… He spent his adult life taking care of artists.”
Photos by Doug Gifford