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Irish eyes that smile

Jeff Tully

When Jim Gillis steps onto the football field for Notre Dame’s season

opener Saturday against Washington State University, the excitement

will shoot through his body like a lightning bolt.

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In the shadow of the Golden Dome, Gillis anticipates he probably

won’t be able to feel his legs once he hears the cheers of more than

80,000 fans, and he won’t be a bit surprised if he looks down and his

feet aren’t touching the ground.

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In a thrill normally reserved for members of the Fighting Irish

program, Gillis won’t be taking the field a player or coach. At 76,

the Toluca Lake resident has never played football for Notre Dame,

nor has he ever coached for the storied college team.

Instead, Gillis’ dedication to the university spans more than 40

years, as he and his wife, Jane, have been instrumental in the Notre

Dame Alumni Assn. and have made outstanding contributions of their

time and talent to benefit the local community, as well as the Notre

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Dame Club of Los Angeles.

For his dedication to the university, Jim Gillis will be honored

at a halftime ceremony Saturday when he will be given the 2003 Harvey

G. Foster Award.

Established in 1982, the Harvey G. Foster Award is conferred on

Notre Dame graduates, living or deceased, who are athletes or have

taken part in athletic endeavors and have distinguished themselves

through civic or university activities.

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“Every time I walk onto the campus and see the Golden Dome, I get

the same wonderful feeling. It’s really indescribable,” Gillis said.

“It is something that gets me every time.”

Along with a reception dinner Friday, Gillis will also have

breakfast with Notre Dame President Rev. Edward A. Malloy on Saturday

morning prior to receiving the award.

Gillis’ affection for the university draws him and his wife back

to Notre Dame a few times a year -- mostly to see the Fighting Irish

football team in action.

Although he usually takes in the game from the stands, Saturday’s

trip onto the field for his award ceremony is a special treat for

Gillis.

“I am so looking forward to that moment,” he said. “I know it will

be a moment I will cherish and I am just so thankful to be receiving

the award.”

With every trip to South Bend, another fond memory is etched in

the mind of a man who is engulfed with a lifetime of Notre Dame

stories and adventures.

Gillis recollects with crystal clarity the first time he ventured

onto the campus 59 years ago.

“It was 1944 and I remember it like it was yesterday,” Gillis

said. “It was a beautiful June day and I was just a young fellow. But

I remember the excitement of being on campus and seeing what is the

Notre Dame tradition.

“It was an excitement that has never left me.”

Gillis enjoyed a few more exciting times at Notre Dame, as he and

his wife were married at the school’s Basilica of Sacred Heart, and

his first-born child, Kevin, was baptized at the church.

*

Gillis’ love for Notre Dame began when he was a child growing up

in Huntington Beach. Long before the advent of television, Gillis got

his education in the tradition of the Irish by listing to the team’s

games on radio.

His interest in the college took on a grander scale in 1934 when

Gillis’ father took him to a USC-Notre Dame game at the Coliseum when

he was 7 years old. Gillis watched as his Irish were easily handled

by the Trojans, 14-0.

Although a football fan, Gillis became an All-CIF Southern Section

baseball standout at Huntington Beach High and was recruited and

offered a scholarship by legendary Coach Rod Dedeaux to play at USC.

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

for the Trojans.

After his military stint was finished, Gillis finally found his

way to Notre Dame, where he played baseball for the Irish from 1949

to 1951.

“It was just an honor for me to attend the college,” said Gillis,

who graduated in 1951. “But to play baseball for Notre Dame was a

dream come true.”

After leaving the university -- and playing briefly in the

Philadelphia Phillies’ organization -- Gillis enjoyed a career as an

FBI agent and became involved in the broadcasting industry.

He remains close to the college as the honorary keeper of the

beloved Shillelagh, the symbolic prize given to the winner of the

USC-Notre Dame football rivalry.

Gillis also served two terms on the Notre Dame Monogram Club board

of directors. In 1996, during his tenure as club president, Gillis

traveled with his wife to Ireland and commissioned a craftsman to

carve the second Shillelagh, which is used today.

*

Knowing his love for Notre Dame, one might imagine that not many

things would be closer to Gillis’ heart. However, for both Jim and

Jane, their charity work gives them more joy than any Irish football

win or allegiance to the college.

The couple’s extensive local community service efforts focus

largely on fund-raising for Providence St. Joseph Medical Center.

They helped raise funds to build and equip a new cancer research wing

of the hospital, where Jim has served on its board of trustees for

four years.

Another organization that benefits from the Gillises hard work and

dedication is the Good Shepard Shelter for abused women and their

children in Los Angeles.

A few years ago, Jim and Jane arranged for the Notre Dame

cheerleading squad to take time out from their duties motivating the

Irish football team in their game with USC to make a visit to the

shelter.

“You should have seen the smiles on the faces of those little

children at the shelter when those cheerleaders came in,” Jim Gillis

said. “It was something that warmed all our hearts. It was a very

special moment for the kids, and for us.”

Gillis said the time and effort put into he and his wife’s charity

endeavors is indeed a labor of love.

“It is something we love to do,” he said.

“We have been very fortunate in our lives to have the things that

we do,” said Jim, who with Jane, have five children and nine

grandchildren. “But there are people who don’t have it as good as we

do.

“It is not to difficult to give some time and give something back

to people who really need the help.”

Since Jim Gillis received a baseball scholarship that allowed him

to attend Notre Dame, he was determined to do the same for

prospective Irish players. In January, he and his wife established

the Jim and Jane Gillis Grand-in-Air Scholarship to be given every

year to a deserving athlete.

“The scholarship is very important to me,” Gillis said.

“I wanted to give someone the same opportunity that was given to

me when I was at Notre Dame.

“It is just my way of helping.”

You might say Notre Dame is Jim Gillis’ passion. But helping his

fellow man has become his life’s work.


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