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The love of the Irish

Alex Leon

Jim Gillis wears his love for the University of Notre Dame on his

sleeve.

The 75-year-old Toluca Lake resident also wears it on his fingers,

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his chest, his head and when the weather is cool and crisp, around

his neck in the form of a scarf.

The affable Gillis doesn’t hide his affinity for the Fighting

Irish. Instead, he embraces it, is empowered by it and does

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everything he can to let everyone he comes in contact with know he’s

a proud Notre Dame alumnus who played baseball for the school from

1949 to 1951.

“I just can’t put into words what going to Notre Dame has meant

for me and my family,” said Gillis, surrounded by an abundance of

Notre Dame memorabilia in his home office. “I get overcome with

emotion when I talk about the spirit of the school and what a special

place it is. I love supporting the university and what it stands for,

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whether we win or lose.

“My wife Jane and I go back to South Bend at least once a year,

and sometimes more. She is from South Bend and we got married when I

was still a student there and we consider it our home away from

home.”

Always upbeat, Gillis doesn’t like to dwell on wins and losses by

his beloved Irish on the football field. However, Gillis -- a former

president of the Notre Dame Club of Los Angeles -- admitted it was

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tough to watch Notre Dame play so poorly Nov. 30 when it lost to USC,

44-13, at the Coliseum.

The loss to the Trojans also meant that the beloved Shillelagh,

the symbolic prize given to the winner of the USC-Notre Dame rivalry,

would reside for a year at USC’s Heritage Hall instead of South Bend,

where it has been 15 times since 1983.

The Fighting Irish hold a 42-28 advantage in their storied series

with the Trojans. Five games have ended in ties.

The sting of the loss behind him, Gillis will root for his Irish

today at 9:30 a.m. when Notre Dame (10-2) takes on North Carolina

State (10-3) in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

“Our athletic area at Notre Dame is also called Heritage Hall and

the original Shillelagh still resides there. The Notre Dame Club in

Los Angeles originated the award in 1952 and it has all the emblems

of the winners of the games dating back to 1926 until 1995, when it

was retired,” he said. “Original Shillelaghs were made from

blackthorn saplings, trimmed, carved and hung in the family chimney

for seasoning. It was an Irish war-club used for centuries by Irish

defenders against the many invasions of their homeland.

“My wife and I traveled to Ireland in 1996 on behalf of NDCLA and

commissioned an Irish craftsman from County Leitrim to carve

Shillelagh II. It was presented to former USC Coach John Robinson for

winning the 1996 game. It is a beautiful work of art with a gold

helmet and a ruby stone representing USC and a gold shamrocks and an

emerald stone representing Notre Dame.”

The Shillelagh is so special and coveted that ABC sportscaster --

and Gillis’ longtime friend -- Keith Jackson mentioned the

significance of the award, as well as Gillis’ name, on the air near

the end of this year’s rivalry game when USC quarterback Carson

Palmer held it up to celebrate the Trojan victory.

If you asked a young Jim Gillis in 1945 what college he hoped to

attend, Notre Dame would have been just a pipe dream for the baseball

standout from Huntington Beach High.

Being a standout All-CIF Southern Section player for the Oilers,

Glendale resident Rod Dedeaux recruited Gillis to play at USC.

However, he was drafted into the Army before he could ever suit up

for the Trojans.

In the Army, Gillis played for the branch’s baseball team, and

that’s where he met Tom Simpson. Simpson, a former Notre Dame player,

helped Gillis get to South Bend to play baseball for the Fighting

Irish.

“I grew up listening to Notre Dame football on the radio and it

was a dream of mine to attend and play baseball at the school. I was

actually enrolled at Michigan State after I got out of the Army when

I got the call that I was accepted at Notre Dame. My roommate for all

of two days was good enough to drive me to the airport,” he said.

“Needless to say, the Notre Dame experience changed my life, as

did being coached by Jake Klein, for whom I played outfield and first

base.

“I still wear his Notre Dame ring that was given to me after he

died, and the whole experience meant so much that my wife and I

recently established a scholarship to aid student-athletes in

baseball.”

After graduating from Notre Dame, Gillis worked for the FBI until

1960 and spent the rest of his working life in the broadcasting

field. He is a longtime member of the Southern California Sports

Broadcasters Assn. and a member of its board of directors. The

organization is preparing for its 12th annual awards luncheon Feb. 3

at the Lakeside Golf Club in Toluca Lake.

With a solid handshake and a warm smile, Gillis offered one more

story regarding his association with Notre Dame.

“My dad took me to my first USC-Notre Dame game in 1934 at the

Coliseum when I was 7 years old, and 60 years later in 1994, I was

there as president of the school’s Los Angeles alumni group,” he

said. “My wife and I have organized several alumni trips back to

South Bend for that game in the past few years, and I love for people

going for the first time to see why I have loved about the school for

so long.”

Although he might have come close to being a USC Trojan, Gillis is

proud to be one of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish fateful, and it is

an honor he wears close to his heart.


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