WINSTON – Frank Irvin Gillespie’s last year playing football at Clemson was 1949. That was 20 years before Dabo Swinney, coach of Clemson’s 2016 National Championship football team, was born. However, Coach Swinney called Gillespie’s son, Frank, the day after his dad died to offer his condolences. That is because Frank Irvin Gillespie’s influence at Clemson is legendary and still being felt almost 70 years after his last football game.
Frank Irvin Gillespie, 94 and another hero from Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” died on March 8. He was a man’s man, a war hero, a champion in collegiate athletics, a loving pastor, a devoted father and grandfather, and faithful friend to many.
One man at Ephesus Baptist Church, where “Dr. Frank” was a member and his son, Frank, is the minister of music, summed up his view of Gillespie’ s life by saying, “When I met Dr. Frank my definition of manhood changed.”
Gillespie grew up in the coal mining region of West Virginia, and because of his athletic prowess was given the opportunity to try out for a football scholarship at Clemson College (now Clemson University).
Legendary Clemson football coach Frank Howard invited Gillespie to come to the college to try out for a scholarship. When he arrived, Howard put on some pads and told his prospective recruit to do the same. The coach took the young athlete out to the football field. The coach got down in the stance of a lineman and told Gillespie to try to knock him out of the hole.
It was reported that Howard recalled, “Well, that boy knocked me winding. It took me a minute to clear my head, but then I said, ‘Okay, Buddy, that’s enough. Let’s go in and get all those papers signed.’”
Gillespie responded, “I thought you said you were going to give me a tryout.”
Howard answered, “I already did.” Howard had seen all he needed to see to give Gillespie a scholarship. He later stated, “You see I weighed about 230 back then, and I figured anybody who could knock me around like that was good enough to play for Clemson. My backbone nearly killed me for a week.”
Coach Howard often publicly declared that Frank Gillespie was the greatest lineman he ever coached in his 30 years at Clemson.
The younger Gillespie explained, “My dad was gentle, but he was also tough. There was a Clemson story I heard often as a child – my mother would tell this to me often. My dad played in the era of leather helmets and no facemasks. In one game he lined up against a guy who jumped off the line and elbowed him in the face. The next play, the guy jumped off the line and elbowed him in the face again. The next play, the guy was taken off the field on a stretcher.”
Gillespie not only played football, but he also played baseball and basketball. By his senior year he was all-conference in all three sports. He earned 11 varsity letters at Clemson, a school record, and earned academic honors as a double major in electrical and textile engineering. He was also student body president his senior year at Clemson.
In his junior year, Gillespie also won the McKelvin Award for best all-around conference athlete, one of only three Clemson athletes to win the award (Deshaun Watson is the latest). He was inducted into the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977 and selected to Clemson’s Football All Centennial Team in 1996.
He interrupted his college experience by joining the United States Army in 1943, spending 3½ years in Europe fighting for his country in WWII. He was in General George Patton’s Third Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Gillespie returned to Clemson after the War and continued his academic and athletic pursuits. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him to play professional football after he graduated from Clemson.
He continued to keep in good physical condition and even in his eighties would ride his bicycle for miles at a time. Just days before he had the debilitating stroke that took his life was pedaling on his stationary bicycle.
It should not be overlooked, however, that he was a dynamic witness for Christ while at Clemson. The younger Gillespie gave the eulogy at the funeral of his dad and stated, “I was talking to a man who owned a bar in Anderson, SC many years ago and who attended Clemson when my dad was there. His memory of my dad was that he went through the dorms every Sunday morning trying to get people to go to church with him."
In the course of time Gillespie was called into the ministry, prepared himself through theological training, and served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Iva, SC for many years. He was also a foundational part of the history of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, FL. He had the heart of a pastor. He loved people and in his years of retirement served the church in every way he could.
For the entirely of his Christian life Frank Gillespie was a powerful witness for Christ and had no compunction about sharing his faith in the grocery story, at the ball park, or in his neighborhood.
Ephesus pastor Billy Godwin stated at the memorial service that Frank Gillespie, like the apostle Paul, had “fought a good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.” Godwin added, “Dr. Frank has greatly enriched the ministry of our church and enhanced our lives by his faithful walk and consistent witness.”