Joanne Spitzer McGillis
1932 - 2021
“Naked we come into the World and naked we leave. After all our toils, we carry away nothing but the deeds we leave behind.” Mordecai Kaplan
Joanne died from complications of aging on December 21, 2021. Born in Salt Lake City to Edward R and Navine Findling Spitzer, she was an active and inquisitive child, blessed with the gift of laughter. From the moment she entered kindergarten, she developed a love for learning which continued throughout her long life.
Although her parents were of modest means, they encouraged her to develop her athletic abilities and introduced her to figure skating, swimming at the YWCA, horseback riding, and skiing, in the beautiful Wasatch Mountains. At age thirteen, Joanne was enrolled in the original, small private Rowland Hall School for Girls (courtesy of her uncle, Sam Makoff). It was there that her art teacher discovered her artistic ability and allowed extra time for her to paint two large murals depicting the founding of the school. These were hung in the building’s entrance. She was awarded an art scholarship to Mills College in Oakland, California, but returned to Salt Lake before graduating in order to marry the handsome WWII veteran, Dick McGillis, whom she’d pursued until he caught her.
Upon returning from their honeymoon, Dick told Joanne that despite having to live on a financial budget, he felt a keen sense of obligation to his community, his country and especially the State of Israel which was rescuing and resettling displaced Holocaust survivors. He urged her to become active in his charitable pursuits and to assume positions of leadership in those organizations. As she did so, it became obvious that she had an innate ability to fundraise by soliciting potential donors and having dinners in her home. Starting in the 60’s she authored and directed musical productions by writing parodies of popular songs which provided a source of revenue for B’nai Brith organization and her synagogue.
Her primary roles in life were being a mother to her three children, a homemaker and hostess for frequent (and often last-minute) dinner guests who were suppliers for her husband’s business, Sunset Sports Centers. Joanne accompanied Dick on many of his buying trips to Asia and learned enough Japanese to navigate the Ginza of Tokyo, visit museums, schools, classical Japanese theater and to help her husband negotiate purchase orders. She also acquired an appreciation for Asian art, some of which she incorporated into her lovely homes.
Both Joanne and Dick prioritized education, believing it was the means to a successful, productive life. As they prospered financially, they responded generously to requests for scholarships to Westminster College, the University of Utah Medical School, the U of U College of Nursing, and recently Joanne’s scholarship to the U of U Orthopedic Center.
When Dick sold his business and retired, he and Joanne bought a home in Rancho Mirage, CA, where they spent five winter months playing golf, tennis, and forming new friendships.
They were invited to join the Prime Minister’s mission to Israel, in 1980, which Joanne later refers to as, “My trip of a lifetime.” She compiled a journal describing the growth and achievements of the relatively new nation and accepted a position on the National Women's Division of United Jewish Federations. In Salt Lake City and Palm Springs, she devoted herself to the rescue and resettlement of persecuted Jews throughout the diaspora.
In 1990, they jumped at the opportunity to financially support a unique private school based on universal Jewish values. Classroom space was rented from Kol Ami Synagogue, but the need for financial independence and a permanent home for the newly named The McGillis School became apparent. With the acquisition of the surplussed Douglas School property in 2002, those goals became a reality. The historically renovated The McGillis School opened its doors in the Fall of 2003. And, five years later, the school’s overwhelming success prompted the support of the McGillis family to build a Gold LEED certified 56,000 sq. ft. addition. As the growth and reputation of The McGillis School flourished, it became a source of pride and joy for Joanne. Her passion intensified each time she interacted with the precious students, watched their drama productions and cheered them on.
Joanne’s passion for The McGillis School became more intense each time she welcomed beautiful shining faces to kindergarten and had the privilege of participating in 8th grade graduations. In her later years, this became a great source of joy and fulfillment.
Joanne was a voracious reader and never felt lonely when surrounded by books. She continually sought to win the respect of intelligent people, the affection of children, and to earn the appreciation of honest critics. Her life was not devoid of adversity and complications, but she maintained a steady resolve and a wicked sense of humor. Her mantra became, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose,” so she channeled her energy into social justice and humanitarian causes. Joanne had an intense desire to leave our world a better place than she found it.
Joanne was generous, funny, self-deprecating, and self-aware. She appreciated the unwavering forbearance of her adored tribe of friends and the uncompromising love and support of nieces, nephews and cousins. She credited her “besties” with prolonging and enriching her life by literally nourishing her body and soul. The last 10 years of her life were enhanced by her devoted and treasured companion/caregiver, Farron Foren.
Joanne was preceded in death by her husband, Dick McGillis, brother Jack Spitzer and son Mark McGillis. She is survived by Roger McGillis (Camille), Laurie McGillis, four grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
Consistent with her life’s purpose, Joanne has bequeathed her body to the University of Utah Body Donor Program. No funeral services will be held. Gifts may be made to The McGillis School in Joanne’s memory. 668 S 1300 E, SLC, UT 84102. www.mcgillisschool.org/giving/ways-to-give. Memories of Joanne may also be shared via the McGillis School website: www.mcgillisschool.org/community/remembering-joanne-mcgillis.