I am truly saddened to share that our beloved William J. Gillespie has passed away.
I find that words don’t express the extraordinary qualities he possessed. Bill was one of the kindest, most thoughtful, and unpretentious individuals I have encountered. Anyone who knew Bill, immediately experienced his enthusiasm for beauty, and his impeccable dress. He was a deeply loyal friend and was extremely close to Carl and Susan, and Carl shared his thoughts:
“Bill was loved and respected by everyone. All of the musicians and the Symphony family held Bill in the highest esteem. Throughout most of the life of the Symphony, Bill was always there—supporting us, cheering us on, celebrating with us, and enjoying the great music he loved so dearly. What an honor to hold the William J. Gillespie Music Director Chair for all these many decades. Bill’s passion for music was a powerful source of inspiration to me and to all of us on stage. Our friendship was a blessing and his spirit will fill the heart of the Pacific Symphony forever.”
In fact, Bill was our first honorary member of the orchestra. He was always welcomed on stage for a rehearsal.
Earlier in his life, Bill was a Marine and a Vietnam veteran. He was proud of his service and supported our Hail to the Heroes concert with immense pride. Carl shared that Bill was even a sheriff at one time. Later in life, Bill became a funeral director at Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar, and he carefully and sensitively coordinated some of the most poignant and painful times for the Symphony family and countless community members. He was a wellspring of soulful and empathetic concern for people he loved.
As a very private person, perhaps Bill is best known in Orange County for his numerous philanthropic commitments that transformed the organizations he touched. These investments include the endowment of the William J. Gillespie Music Director Chair in 1995, the ABT William J. Gillespie School of Dance at the Segerstrom Center, the William J. Gillespie Organ in the concert hall, and immeasurable other donations to the arts. He was particularly fond of the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony partnerships, and supported both organizations with generous sponsorships of great choral masterworks. He was also a major supporter of dance programming at UC Irvine, and served on the Board of the American Ballet Theater.
Bill shared with me that his college roommate was the renowned conductor Lawrence Foster, who taught him to appreciate classical music. He said it was classical listening day and night, and 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.
I think few people realize that when Pacific Symphony was struggling to meet payrolls in the 1980s, he personally loaned the organization money and often forgave the loans. He was among the very first individuals to make an endowment gift to help solidify the early stages of our growth.
Bill was blessed to be able to use his family’s Farmers Insurance inheritance to launch a philanthropic foundation in 1994. The following year, he stunned the OC arts community by pledging $6.6 million to five cultural organizations, at the time the largest gift of its kind in Orange County history. Pacific Symphony received $1.2 million of that pledge.
In the early days of his philanthropic life, he had a sincere interest in Orange County’s cultural development. He was deeply worried about the arts and the resilience of the organizations as they developed. His dear friend, investment advisor, and long-time supporter of the Symphony, Rich Gadbois was quoted in 1995 as saying: “The idea is to immediately guarantee the future success of the organizations…There are no strings attached to this. This is cash coming in for immediate utilization.” Rich went on to say, “occasionally in life you run into angels who sort of are there when you need them, and Bill’s one of those.”
Bill Gillespie was a private person, but had a very loyal group of friends with whom he attended concerts and events. His loss is profound, but his legacy leaves an indelible imprint on his friends, family, and the cultural life of Orange County. My heart goes out to his dear friends, like Carl and Susan, Rich, Janice Johnson, and many others who I know are stricken with grief. We will miss him terribly and undoubtedly there will be a concert dedicated to his memory which we will announce.