By Steve Ruman
When asked to describe John Gillen’s dedication to the Warren John F. Kennedy High athletic program, former Kennedy basketball coach Shawn Pompelia reflects back to a cold, snowy Christmas night several years ago.
Pompelia’s daughters had received bikes on Christmas morning, and they were anxious to try them out. Pompelia obliged by bringing the children to Kennedy’s gymnasium, where they could take a quick test ride.
“I notice a light on in John’s office, and I take a closer look,” Pompelia said. “Here it is, Christmas night, and John is sitting there filling out schedules, just doing what he always does on any other given day. John Gillen was all about Kennedy. He was Kennedy.”
Gillen, who served as Kennedy’s athletic director since 1972, died of natural causes on Wednesday. He was 84.
Gillen graduated from St. Mary’s High School in 1950. He taught, coached basketball and served as the athletic director of his alma mater beginning in 1960, then moved over to JFK when it opened in 1964. In addition to his role as AD at Kennedy, Gillen was a longtime coach of several sports. He also served as a sociology, psychology and world history teacher.
“There has never been a Kennedy High School without John Gillen,” Pompelia said. “It’s just hard to imagine a future without him being there. He lived for Kennedy, for the students and for the athletic program.
“John never uttered a bad word about anyone. He always saw the good in people. And I don’t think anyone has ever had a bad thing to say about him. In this day and age, that’s a huge tribute.”
Like Pompelia, Dennis Jasinski has a vivid memory which exemplifies Gillen’s dedication to Kennedy athletics. Jasinski taught at Kennedy for 16 years, and was the Eagles’ basketball coach from 1978-89.
“My first year coaching, I asked John to scout an Akron team we were going to be playing in the future,” Jasinski said. “He had made other plans, so I go up to the game with an assistant. We’re sitting there, and in walks John. He looks at me and says, ‘I told my wife I was going out for a loaf of bread.’ He then proceeds to put together a very thorough scouting report.
“With John, it was Kennedy first. He would do anything for that school. He cared about every student who ever walked those halls as though they were his own children.”
Jasinski said that Gillen’s love for the school was superseded only by his love of family and God.
“John was a man of extreme faith,” Jasinski said. “I would see him every Saturday at St. Mary’s Church. After mass, there he was by himself saying the rosary. And he just adored his family.”
Gillen leaves behind his wife, Gloria, three sons (John, Brian and James) and a daughter (Annie). He was preceded in death by his son, Thomas.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Howland) also described Gillen as a man “whose life revolved around God, family and Kennedy High School....and truthfully, Kennedy was his extended family.”
Ryan, a JFK graduate, was a student in several of Gillen’s classes. Gillen was also Ryan’s freshman basketball coach. Several years later, Gillen helped coach the freshman team under Ryan.
“What I remember most about John was the way he taught life lessons into everything he did,” Ryan said. “As a student, I remember always seeing him walking into the school chapel. He was as busy as anyone in that school, but he always made it a point to go into that chapel every single day. That’s something that always stuck with me.
“John was teaching others just by the way he lived his life. He was the kindest, most caring individual. If you just met him and talked to him for five minutes, you’d walk away feeling as though you knew him your entire life. And, he wouldn’t forget you.”
Kennedy principal Joseph Kenneally said that even as Gillen fought health issues in recent months, his loyalty to the school never wavered. When Kennedy played in the Division VII state title football game last December, Gillen was on the sidelines in Columbus cheering on the Eagles.
“It was cold, it was raining and snowing, and I tried to give John my umbrella,” Kenneally said. “He says, ‘No, you’re the boss, you need it.’ He wouldn’t even let me share the umbrella with him. When our basketball team played in Canton in March, he was ailing, but he was there. He was hellbent on supporting Kennedy until the very end.
“John’s infectious smile made everyone feel as though he was your best friend. He was an incredibly kind soul, and he was the last link to St. Mary’s School.”
The admiration for Gillen stretched far beyond the walls of JFK. In fact, even Kennedy opponents couldn’t help but sometimes root for the Eagles because of Gillen, according to Dick Angle.
“He was great to work with, always very up-front and honest, and he’d go out of his way to accommodate anyone he came in contact with,” Angle said. “Just a great human being, and a true professional.”
Angle was a longtime football coach and athletic director at Ursuline. He then coached at Howland at a time when the JFK-Howland rivalry was perhaps the fiercest rivalry in Trumbull County.
“Man, he bled Kennedy blue,” Angle said. “But win or lose, after a game he was the same stand-up guy. He was just total class.”
And while Kenneally noted that “only death was going to stop John from fulfilling his duties to the school,” Angle isn’t so sure.
“You know, John is probably up in heaven filling out the rest of the spring sports schedules, checking the weather, making adjustments with cancellations,” Angle said.
Gillen is a member of the Trumbull County Hall of Fame, Warren Sports Hall of Fame and the John F. Kennedy Hall of Fame. In 2012, the Kennedy gymnasium was named in his honor.
Family and friends may call from 10 a.m.-noon on Tuesday at St. Mary’s Church in Warren.