Charity Spotlight: Prominent Local Philanthropist William Gillespie Dies

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Bill Gillespie at an event at Segerstrom Center in 2017 – by Doug Gifford

Philanthropist William Gillespie, whose generous donations to Orange County arts organizations helped sustain and grow the performing arts in the county, has died. He was 79.

Gillespie was a longtime resident of Laguna Beach. His William Gillespie Foundation is based in Newport Beach.

Among the organizations that benefited from his support: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Pacific Symphony, South Coast Repertory, Pacific Chorale, Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Laguna Dance Festival, and many others.

He served on the board of American Ballet Theatre and provided funding for the ABT William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which opened in 2015.

“Everyone at Segerstrom Center for the Arts is deeply saddened by the passing of Bill Gillespie,” said Segerstrom Center President Casey Reitz in a statement. “He was incredibly generous in fostering the creative process and, in particular dance. His support came in many ways, but it was most often about sharing the beauty of the arts. His generosity to the Center included the gift of the organ in our concert hall, support for the International Dance Series and funding for the William J. Gillespie American Ballet Theatre School at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. He was passionate about dance and committed to its future by providing opportunities for young dancers to pursue their dreams and careers. The Center has been so lucky; It’s a significant loss of a unique, genuine and treasured friend. We count our blessings for how much he loved the arts and Orange County.”

Bill Gillespie in front of ABT Gillespie School – by Doug Gifford

Arts Orange County, the officially designated arts council for the County of Orange, honored Gillespie with a Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award in 2006 as a Community Visionary.

“Bill Gillespie’s generosity came from the heart and extended to several Orange County arts and culture organizations,” said Arts OC President and CEO Richard Stein. “He preferred to avoid attention and I would see him slip in unnoticed at performances. A military veteran, he also supported organizations that served veterans. His impact will be felt for generations in our community.”

Pacific Symphony President and CEO John Forsyte lamented Gillespie’s passing on the Pacific Symphony blog.

“I find that words don’t express the extraordinary qualities he possessed,” wrote Forsyte. “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 St.Clair.”

“Bill was loved and respected by everyone,” wrote Carl St.Clair. “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.”

William Gillespie with pipe organ – Doug Gifford

Forsyte noted that Gillespie was the first honorary member of the Pacific Symphony, and was always welcomed on stage for a rehearsal. Forsyte also mentioned Gillespie’s  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,” wrote Forsyte. “He was also a major supporter of dance programming at UC Irvine, and served on the Board of the American Ballet Theater.”

Forsyte shared that when Pacific Symphony was struggling to meet payrolls in the 1980s, Gillespie 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,” wrote Forsyte. “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.”

Forsyte concluded by stating that “his loss is profound, but his legacy leaves an indelible imprint on his friends, family, and the cultural life of Orange County. We will miss him terribly and undoubtedly there will be a concert dedicated to his memory which we will announce.”

Bill Gillespie with ABT WJG students in 2015 – by Doug Gifford
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