This Old Soldier Not About to Fade Away

By Regina Villiers. Originally published November 20, 1996 in The Suburban Life, added March 16, 2014.

George Gillespie, World War I veteran, in 1996

George Gillespie, World War I veteran, in 1996

The old soldiers from World War I have mostly faded away by now. After all, the war ended 78 years ago.

But George Gillespie of Madeira, a World War I veteran, is doing fine, thank you.

More than 78 years ago, Gillespie served in the Medical Corps in the U.S. Navy, treating the wounded, mostly Marines, being sent home from active duty.

Gillespie had wanted to be a doctor, but he interrupted college to serve his country in wartime.

“I’d had the chemistry and some of the courses I needed to be a doctor,” he said.

Before enlisting, he waited until his mother had the baby she was expecting. Then, off he went. The baby was the last of nine children in the Gillespie family.

When he joined the Navy, Gillespie was sent to a Naval hospital in Newport, R.I., where he studied for almost a year. He remembers it well, even how many lectures he had in the morning and how many in the afternoon. After eight to nine months, they went for an exam in 13 subjects. They had to make at least a 65 percent in every subject to pass. He came out with 93, fourth in his class. Most of the students were pharmacists he said.

After graduation, he was sent to a hospital in Boston, then to Newport Naval Hospital, and, finally, to a hospital in Philadelphia. He says that about 90 percent of the people he worked with there were doctors who came from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Gillespie was born and grew up in Wallad, Tenn., about one to two miles from the edge of what is today the Smokey Mountain National Park.

He went to high school at Maryville College, staying in a dorm. After high school, he stayed on there for college. He attended school on an athletic scholarship. He played football (sub-fullback), baseball (shortstop) and basketball. In basketball, he was the sixth (hatchet) man.

When he was discharged from the Navy, he returned to college transferring for a time to the University of Missouri, but he never got his medical degree. There were four children in his family in college at the time, so he dropped out.

After coming to Cincinnati, he attended U.C. for two years at night.

Gillespie speaks with educated words, and traces of his soft Tennessee accent still remain in his quiet voice.

He came to Cincinnati in 1925. He arrived on a Friday night and got a hotel room. The next morning, he went down to Pennsylvania Station and got a part-time job with the railroad.

He worked four hours per night for $72 per month. Then on Monday, he went out and got himself a day job. For five years, he worked both jobs and paid the salary from the night job on a farm he bought in Tennessee.

He met his wife in 1929 at a dance hall. Young people would go to dance halls in those days for recreation and to meet people. George loved to dance. He usually went on Sunday afternoons. With his two jobs that was one of his few free times. “You’d meet lots of girls and get to hear some of the best orchestras in the country,” he said.

The Gillespies bought a house and moved to Madeira in 1935. The meant it to be a starter home, but they never had children, or needed more space.

Gillespie has lived in that same house ever since. 61 years. His wife died in 1991, after spending nine years in a nursing home.

When he can no longer live independently in his home here, he says he’ll go back to Tennessee. His family home where he grew up has remained in his family. His niece lives there now, and that’s where he’ll go, he says.

Although he’s 98 years old now, Gillespie still lives on his own, quite independently. He still drives and can handle his chores, including putting out his trash and recycling bin on garbage day. He walks and moves around well, without a cane.

He says his eyesight has declined, cutting down his reading, but he wears no hearing aid. He hears everything, even the quietest tones of conversation.

He still has the tall, slender, easy grace of an athlete. Looking at him, it’s easy to imagine what Cris Collingsworth will look like at the age of 98.

And he still has the quite grace and conversational manner of a southern gentleman. He loves to talk, and his mind is an encompassing encyclopedia of a whole century. He can remember it all—not only all the wars of the 20th century, but also the little stories and foibles of a culture, the stories you don’t find in history books.

He can tell how it was to go bear hunting in the Smokies, before it was a park. His eyes sparkle, as he tells you how many men you’d need and where you’d station them, including how to guard the food, “fatback and sweet potatoes.”

He admits to a bit of heart trouble and a little arthritis. “But I’ve lived this long,” he said, “because I was able to be my own doctor and take care of myself.”

At 98 year old, George Gillespie, World War I veteran, still in full command of his facilities, may well be Madeira’s finest treasure at Veteran’s Day 1996.