Editor’s Note: Joe Gillie officially retired this week as President and CEO of Old School Square. A celebration of his legacy will be held Nov. 7 at Old School Square. To get tickets visit http://delraycenterforthearts.org/
I remember the first time I met Joe Gillie.
It was 25 years ago and he was a board member at Old School Square, which at the time was a fledgling experiment in a town trying desperately to change its narrative.
It was 1990 and Delray Beach was a very different place. In March, the city held a landmark election and elected a slate of candidates who promised to reform government, bring stability to City Hall and implement what was being called a “Decade of Excellence.”
The 80s had been a rough decade for Delray, also known as “Dullray” back then. The city had serious crime issues, the downtown had major vacancies and the crack cocaine epidemic had engulfed entire neighborhoods. But there were signs of hope all around. Visions 2000 brought people together, there were plans to reform schools, a new CRA was doing good things, historic districts were being established and the Decade of Excellence Bond passed with huge voter support, promising over $20 million in needed improvements and beautification.
A year later a visionary police chief was hired and a new chamber president too. It was a time of hope and promise and Old School Square was at the forefront of civic endeavors charged with being a catalyst for downtown revitalization.
Two years after I met Joe, he became President of Old School Square. By 1993, he was in charge of our first bid for an All America City Award and when I say he was in charge, he was in charge.
Joe managed every detail using his theatre background to craft a presentation that literally blew the judges in Tampa away. I recently found archival footage of that event and it was remarkable to see our diversity and spirit in action—and it was remarkable to see Joe’s leadership at its most impactful.
He incorporated young and old, black and white, east and west into a team. In baseball they call it clubhouse chemistry; that intangible that makes champions. Joe was the architect of that chemistry and the vehicle was the All America City Competition.
When you view the footage from that event, you see a young Mayor Tom Lynch, civic giants like C. Spencer Pompey, dedicated city staff like Lula Butler and Dorothy Ellington, residents like John Tallentire and Sandra Almy and you just marvel at the energy, spirit, humor and camaraderie. There was trust among neighbors, people loved their city and trusted their local government enough to go millions of dollars in debt in order to achieve a vision.
Old School Square itself was a big risk, and you can see in founder Frances Bourque’s eyes her trust and belief in a young Joe Gillie to pull off a vision that if successful would mark a huge turning point in the city’s rich history.
In hindsight, winning that first All America City Award was the propellant we needed as a community to tell the world that things in Delray were changing and we were serious about lifting up all parts of our community.
Joe Gillie was at the forefront of those efforts. He, along with many many others, helped to win two All America City Awards and we became the first city in Florida to do so.
But Joe was our captain. In Joe, we trusted. He kept this city focused, laughing and moving forward through good times and challenging times.
Joe was a different kind of leader. He wasn’t walled off in some office, he could be found in the trenches, usually with a broom in those early days, but always with a larger than life personality that greeted patrons, promoted shows, programs and classes and always talked up the larger goal which was building community through culture.
We hear, often, how people are replaceable. How no one person is larger than the mission or more important than the enterprise. Part of that old saw is true, except that people are not replaceable.
There will be people who serve as President of what is now called the Delray Center for the Arts and hopefully they will do a great job in the role. But there will never be another Joe Gillie. He’s an original; a Delray original by way of Virginia.
In August, I attended a surprise party for Joe at Smoke. It’s not easy to surprise Joe, but it happened. Many of his friends were there and it was a wonderful night, full of memories and laughs, but with Joe in the room there is always talk about the future.
Joe is departing from his role, but he’s not retiring. He’s a creative force and creative beings don’t stop inventing and innovating. He will act. He will sing. He will write. He will paint and he will continue to be a vibrant and positive force in our community.
During the party a loop of old photos ran on the wall in back of Smoke. Joe looking dapper in a tux. Joe with hair. Joe and me and Gary Eliopoulos dressed as rappers (Joe is the only guy who could get me to do that or to get Diane, my wife to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein songs with localized lyrics at a roast in front of 450 people). Joe made us believe. His time here was magical—pure magic. How lucky we have been.