Prominent Orange County Arts Supporter William J. Gillespie Dies

Photo courtesy of SCFTA/Doug Gifford

William J. Gillespie with ballet students at the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

William J. Gillespie, a prominent Orange County philanthropist whose love of the performing arts, especially dance, led to generous donations to several local organizations, has died. Gillespie’s passing was announced Friday during a staff meeting at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. A cause of death was not announced.

Gillespie focused for years on American Ballet Theatre, where he served as a board member since 1999. He was instrumental in supporting its Orange County school, which was named the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School when it opened in September 2015. Gillespie also supported the Laguna Dance Festival and the dance program at the University of California, Irvine.

Gillespie’s generosity wasn’t limited to dance. He gave $5 million to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Building on the Vision campaign, which helped support the construction of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. In 2006, Gillespie made a $2.5 million contribution to underwrite construction and installation of the concert hall’s pipe organ. The instrument, made by the well-known organ firm C.B. Fisk, was named the William J. Gillespie Concert Organ.

“He was a genuine arts philanthropist,” said Judy Morr, executive vice president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. “He gave not just to dance but to universities, the Pacific Symphony, the Pacific Chorale.”

In May 1995, Gillespie pledged $6.6 million to Orange County arts organizations, the largest pledge of its kind in Orange County history at the time, according to an L.A. Times report. $2.8 million went to the Segerstrom Center, then called the Orange County Performing Arts Center; $1.2 million went to Pacific Symphony; $1 million went to Pacific Chorale; $940,000 went to South Coast Repertory; and $680,000 went to the Orange County Philharmonic Society.

Gillespie’s passion for dance resulted in some of the Segerstrom Center’s most significant gifts for its dance school and dance programming, Morr said.

“I am incredibly grateful to him for all the support he gave. In presenting great dance, of course, and for his support of ABT, but also he helped bring in dance from around the world.”

Gillespie’s support for the Segerstrom Center began when it opened more than three decades ago, Morr pointed out. “I can remember him coming to our dance events from the very beginning. He was always very passionate and interested in what we were doing. I was interested in presenting great dance, and so was he. That was our common thread.”

Jodie Gates, the founder and artistic director of the Laguna Dance Festival, said Gillespie’s support since the early years of the festival was crucial to its success.

“He gave to the festival almost since the beginning, certainly for well over a decade. He was a longtime believer in what we were doing. I felt proud that one of our largest donors believed so strongly in our mission. To me it was validating.”

Gates, who met Gillespie when she was part of the dance faculty at UC Irvine, got to know him personally and remembers him fondly.

“He was the most gracious and generous individual that I have ever met. And the absolute extraordinary trait that Bill held was his sincere and authentic dedication to dance as an art form. The enthusiasm and joy that he got from watching his scholarship students become incredibly successful was impressive.”

Gillespie was always intensely curious about and engaged in the dance organizations and projects that he supported, Gates said.

“I remember him coming backstage at intermission during the Laguna Dance Festival and I showed him what his gift did to help us, which was sponsor an entire company. He really loved that connection. I showed him the moving lights and the equipment we were able to rent to present that performance. And he really understood the importance of preserving dance to keep it thriving in our community. He built a framework and really I believe changed the landscape for the arts in Orange County, especially for dance.”

Gillespie, 79, spent much of his life in Laguna Beach. He was grandson and heir to a founding investor in Farmers Insurance Group, according to the L.A. Times.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].