I’ve lived in Tooele County for more than 15 years now. Yes, I know that’s nothing compared to most of you. But it’s long enough to recognize a true Tooele County sports fan when I see one, and folks, I knew the greatest of them all.
Joel N. Gillespie called it a game on January 4, 2016. He passed away peacefully from causes incident to his age; he was 95 years young. My last talk with him revolved around his Tooele home built by his father, William Green Gillespie, and his mother, Emma Permelia (”Pearl”) Nelson, in 1915. Joel was born and raised in that home and was cousin to another dear friend and local sports legend, Johnny Nelson.
Joel owned and cared for the beautiful homestead after his parents’ passings in the late ’70s, and I had the honor of helping him with it along the way. He had opportunities to sell but never would. It represented his deep ties to a community and its sports teams he loved more than life. Every conversation I had with him about the house ended with a lengthy discussion about football, baseball, basketball, tennis or whatever sport was in season. It didn’t matter if we talked about Tooele, Grantsville or Stansbury, Joel Gillespie loved them all. He also loved talking about college football, particularly Utah and BYU, always wanting to know my opinion about games, pending recruits and controversies.
He would be spitting fire right now about Utah’s basketball coach, Larry Krystkowiak, canceling the Utah/BYU rivalry game next year. He would have wanted reprimands for Krystkowiak and athletic director Chris Hill. The game is older than his house and some 20-something kid stops the rivalry with a punch? It took World War II to do it last time.
Joel had plenty of his own opinions and wasn’t shy about sharing. He liked to banter back and forth and I felt honored that he thought I was worthy of the exercise. I will dearly miss our deliberations.
Joel was born the youngest of three children, Nov. 20, 1920, in Tooele. He was a Tooele High athlete and played any sport he set his mind to with skill and precision. Joel talked a lot about his coach, Sterling R. Harris, as well as what an impact Sterling had on him, the town and the team. Joel was quarterback for the 1937 Tooele Buffaloes B State Championship football team, coached by first-year head coach Dan Hillman Gillespie, who was Joel’s cousin.
After the state championship, Joel headed to Hawaii to play Roosevelt and Kamehameha high schools in December that same year on a traveling team that consisted of 21 other boys, Coach Dan and his wife, Tooele principal Jessee F. Steele, and several townsfolk. They left Tooele on Dec. 7 and traveled by rail via San Francisco and Los Angeles, then by sea aboard the Mariposa and Monterey liners, landing at Honolulu Harbor five days later. Joel reminisced about the journey often, thinking it better than bowl games of today. The trip was a great educational and recreational experience for him and he got to play more football in the process.
After high school Joel worked weekends at the Tooele Smelter to earn money to attend the University of Utah before he left on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Northern States Mission from 1939-41. He had a beautiful tenor voice and sang in the Mormon Male Quartet, which joined heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey on a war bond tour in Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.
After his mission, Joel joined the Navy and became an orthodontist at UC Berkeley (now UC San Francisco) through the V-12 program. He set up his first orthodontic practice in Salt Lake City, which was where he met his sweetheart, Barbara Ann Barnes, in his waiting room. They were married May 2, 1949, in the Salt Lake LDS Temple.
When the Korean War broke out, Joel was called up for duty, assigned to a special research project with the Public Health Service as a captain in Washington D.C. After the war, he was a Major in the Army Reserve and opened an orthodontic practice in San Francisco, then Vallejo and finally in Fairfield. Joel and his family moved a lot during those years but finally settled at their present home in Green Valley in 1958.
Notwithstanding all those years on the road, Joel never forgot his Tooele roots and always kept track of things here, especially his favorite sports teams. While maintaining the family home, his subscription to the Tooele Transcript Bulletin followed him everywhere he went. His account number with the Transcript Bulletin is number forty-four, making him one of the longest paper subscribers in its 118-year history.
Joel retired in 1980 and served as mission president of the LDS Church’s North Carolina Raleigh Mission. He remained active in the Mormon church throughout his life, serving as bishop and stake high councilman. He especially loved the youth and reached out to them, often giving wise direction and counsel to those needing a cheerful lift. He was also very generous with his time, talents and resources. When Johnny Nelson passed away Jan. 22, 2015, Joel sent me a check to deliver to Mark Ernst, principal of Grantsville High School, for the tennis program in Johnny’s name. He’s probably upset with me right now for disclosing this — he didn’t like a lot of fan fare.
Joel always wore a flat cap, especially while playing golf. He was a very competitive golfer well into his 80s, and was a member of Green Valley Country Club. He often invited me to join him, but it was usually too far a trek for me to make from Grantsville. Now I regret not taking his offer.
During Grantsville home football games he would often call me on the phone while I annonced the games in the press box, so he could listen. He always wanted to come see the Cowboys play, and I wish he had.
All good things come to an end, and Joel was ready for his. When he lost his daughter, Tony Rae, on January 30, 2010, then his beloved Barbara on April 27, 2014, his backswing faded and the spring in his step disappeared. He missed his sweethearts dearly and waited impatiently for the day when he could be with them again.
In the meantime we talked, conferred, argued, laughed, then talked some more. Joel was the best sports buddy a man could have. He was my biggest critic and my biggest fan. He often flattered me by comparing my writing style with that of Grantland Rice, whose essay about The Four Horseman in 1924 is a legendary work in sports writing history. We cried and reminisced when Curt Gowdy passed away in 2006, and did it all over again in 2008 at Jim McKay’s passing.
If I didn’t call him after a big game, whether high school or collegiate, I heard about it later. With every column, I expected a call from Joel a week or so later when the Transcript Bulletin would arrive in his California mailbox. He would comment about my columns and we’d discuss them vividly, sometimes agreeing with my view point and sometimes not. He sometimes sent letters to the editor.
He became the grandfather I never had over the years. How I will miss our lively conversations. Joel and Barbara’s legacy lives on in their surviving children — Herb, Craig and Kurt — and with their 13 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren (with one on the way). Hopefully they will carry on Joel’s great interest and passion for Tooele County. It’s in their blood, so I suspect they will.
This Saturday at 2 p.m. our time, I will take a minute and think about Joel Gillespie. I invite everyone reading this to also join with his family and contemplate his life at this time. Think about his great love for each of you and this sacred valley he called home. Think of what matters most in your lives and promise Joel you’ll be a better person, a better neighbor, a better citizen and better friend. Resolve to be as big a fan for our sports teams in Tooele County as Joel was. You still have time left in your game, make every minute of it count, in memory of our departed friend.
Joel N. Gillespie’s game is over, and he left everything he had on the field of life. We need more people like him.
Joel, I’ll see you from the sidelines.