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.
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.
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
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.
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“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.