By KARL PEARSON
Talk about your big man on campus. Jim Gillespie has always been that guy.
Even though he hasn't lived in Ashtabula County for years, the former two-sport standout at Ashtabula High School still has roots that are deeply planted in its soil. When he hears mention of his old stomping grounds, the excitement can still be heard in his voice.
There is good reason for Gillespie to remember Ashtabula well, for it should remember him in a highly positive light, too. For the gentle giant still possesses the county's second-oldest track record, a throw of 58-8%BE in the shot put that he produced in 1965, his senior year with the Panthers.
"I'm very proud of that record," he said by telephone from his home in Defiance. "It just shows all the hard work that went into it."
Not that he would begrudge some youngster from surpassing it.
"I would want to be the first person to congratulate the guy who breaks it," he said.
During his high school career, Gillespie rubbed elbows with some of the greatest sports figures that ever walked the fields of Ashtabula County, either as a teammate, opponent or a coach. That certainly applied to football, where he was a member of some of Tony Chiacchiero's greatest teams during his three-year varsity career.
His performance as a 6-foot-3, 250-pound offensive tackle and defensive end served as his ticket to Ohio University. There he played briefly for Bill Hess' Bobcats during the most productive football era in school history.
But his achievements in track are truly legendary. Obviously his shot-put record is still the most significant, but he waged some terrific battles with competitors like Geneva's Mark Debevc, a sophomore during his senior year, particularly in the discus.
"I remember we had some great competitions against each other," Gillespie said. "I remember both of us throwing the discus down at Harbor and throwing it across the street and onto the porch of one of those houses."
Gillespie said he was blessed with great coaches in both football and track, earning three varsity letters for Chiacchiero on the gridiron and four for Bill Smith in track.
"I was so blessed with the coaches I had in high school," Gillespie said. "I hold Coach Chiacchiero in such high regard. We were NEC champions my sophomore and senior years. I also received a lot encouragement from Mr. Guarnieri."
The latter refers to George "Chic" Guarnieri, who had been retired as Panther football coach for a decade, but still taught at the high school and was considered a legendary figure even then.
Great coaching also came in the throws with the Panthers. His first two seasons, he worked with Randy Pope in that area.
"He had the school record in the shot put at 45-7," Gillespie said. "I broke his record as a freshman. By the time I was a sophomore, I had got out to 49 feet."
But his throwing technique and performance got a real shot in the arm his junior year.
"We had a lady named Verna Magda who came in to help the throwers," Gillespie said. "She had been a member of the Hungarian Olympic team in 1952 and had been a 52-foot shot putter.
"She had thrown the 12-pound shot, which is what we were throwing in high school. I wanted to make sure I could throw the shot farther than she had. That was a real challenge for me."
It drove him to set the NEC record in the shot put his junior year, hitting 54-4. That record also still stands.
But Gillespie didn't stop there. He kept on improving, reaching his peak at the district meet, which was held at Kent State University in those days.
"That was quite a feat," Gillespie said.
It qualified him for the state meet, but Gillespie had the misfortune of getting to Columbus in a year where the state meet field was loaded with great shot putters and discus throwers.
"I had another 58-foot throw at state, and it was only good for fourth," he said. "The winner was Dave Foley from Cincinnati Roger Bacon, who threw it 65 feet. That was an exceptional group of shot putters.
"In fact, it was an exceptional group of throwers at state that year. I was also fourth in the discus."
It must have been. Foley went on to play three years of football at Ohio State for Woody Hayes, earning first-team All-American honors at offensive tackle and serving as a captain for the Buckeyes' 1968 national championship team. He became the first draft pick of the New York Jets that year and went on to a very successful NFL career.
But football proved to be Gillespie's ticket to a college education. Chiacchiero had created a connection to Ohio University with Hess by sending him players like the late Wash Lyons. By the time Gillespie headed off to Athens, he was a robust 6-3, 250.
But college football never quite worked out for Gillespie.
"I hurt my knee in spring ball before my sophomore year at OU," he said. "I've had to have 13 knee operations over the years.
"I loved football. I came from a poor family. My dream was to be a minister and play in the NFL. My hero was Bill Glass."
It was natural hero worship. Glass was a defensive end on the Cleveland Browns' 1964 NFL championship team who later went into prison ministry and eventually led a series of crusades, including visiting Ashtabula at one time.
Instead, Gillespie finished his degree and came back to his alma mater, taking a substitute job at first, then taking a full-time health and physical education job at Ashtabula in 1970. His love of both games led him into teaching and coaching for a while, working with Lyons in football and track, where he stayed until 1974. He also became the Panthers' wrestling coach.
"I had wanted to wrestle when I was in high school, but never had the chance," he said. "While I was at OU, I fell in love with the sport."
He applied a lot of the advice Chiacchiero imparted to him as a player in all his coaching duties.
"He used to tell us it's easier to become a champion than to remain one," Gillespie said.
While he was still in college, Gillespie made another lifetime commitment, marrying the former Mary Frances Dispenza, a 1967 St. John graduate.
"We didn't date until I was in college," he said. "We've been married 39 years."
The Gillespies have three children - Tammy, Travis James and Troy Allen.
The opportunity to make better money and work with another acquaintance from his playing days, the late Jim Smith, who had been the football coach at Harbor, pulled him to Riverside in 1974 when Smith took the head football job there.
"It was purely a financial move to go (to Riverside)," Gillespie said.
He ended up staying at Riverside for nine years, remaining on the staff of the late Ron Shafer during his tenure with the Beavers and eventually making his home in Perry.
While still teaching at Riverside, Gillespie also began selling life insurance for New York Life out of the Painesville office with former St. John boys basketball coach Denny Berrier. In 1980, he left teaching to work full-time for New York Life.
"I spent 19 years with New York Life," he said. "In 1987, they transferred me out to the Quad Cities in Iowa."
During the family's 10-year stay in Iowa, his sons followed in Gillespie's athletic footsteps, playing football and competing in track.
"Travis was the state runner-up in the shot put in Iowa," he said. "He threw the shot 55-10. He was fourth in the discus, too."
Travis eventually earned a business degree from Augustana College, the alma mater of former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson and a long-time NCAA Division III football power. He is now the offensive line coach and assistant track coach at Allegheny College. He is married to Elizabeth.
Another business opportunity came to Gillespie in 1997 which brought the family back to Ohio.
"I came back to work for Defiance Metals," the 59-year-old Gillespie said. "I was the safety director there until I retired."
Troy went to Defiance College, playing football and competing in track while he was there. He earned a degree in criminal justice there, and still resides in the community. He is training to be a police officer. He recently married Amanda and has a step-daughter, Mattea.
"Both my sons played college football and competed in track," Gillespie said.
The most famous member of the family now, though, is Tammy, better known as Tammy Pescatelli, who has been steadily gaining fame as a comedienne, having appeared on Comedy Central, The Tonight Show and several other network television programs. The Pescatelli name is derived from the Italian version of a family name also very familiar in Ashtabula, the Fishes.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is that all three of our children have college degrees," Gillespie said. "Tammy has her degree in fashion design from Kent State.
"(Tammy) gets her sense of humor from her dad," he said with a chuckle. "I'm very proud of the rewards and success they've all received, because it's all from hard work."
The boys are known around the family by creative names, too.
"We call Travis Fettucine. You know, the thick noodles," Gillespie said. "Troy is Linguine, the thin noodles."
Family ties still remain in Ashtabula County. Gillespie's mother, Susan, has been deceased for several years and his father, Jim Sr., passed away last year, but his step-mother, Elaine, still resides in Geneva.
Tammy's success has also helped keep the family's ties to the county strong. Although he has been in shaky health for some time after two heart attacks, they still get back home every now and then.
"Tammy was asked back to perform at an event at the Harbor Golf Club not long ago," Gillespie said. "I heard from people I haven't heard from in 30 or 40 years with ties to Ashtabula and Harbor.
"We were also going out west to one of her shows in Las Vegas not long ago. When we were on the plane, we ran into (retired Edgewood athletic director) Ed Batanian and (WFUN sports broadcaster) Pat Sheldon and talked to them all the way out there. They came to see her show out in Vegas."
It's all kept the Gillespies' connection to their roots strong.
"We definitely still hold Ashtabula dear," he said.