Joanne McGillis passed away peacefully on December 21, 2021, after living a remarkable and accomplished 89 years of life. Along with her beloved husband, Dick McGillis, Joanne made our school a possibility for all of us today and for generations to come.
McGillis was honored to host a celebration of Joanne’s life on June 14, 2022—what would have been her 90th birthday. Many of Joanne’s closest friends came to celebrate her, along with members of the community who benefited from her wisdom and generosity. During the celebration, our Head of School, Jim Brewer, shared the following remarks about Joanne and her impact.
We are here today on what would have been Joanne’s 90th birthday, a fitting moment to pay tribute to her, as she doted on
so many of us on our birthdays and special life moments.
This room is filled with people who loved, cared about, were influenced by, and developed friendships with Joanne. I know many of you knew Joanne for other reasons outside the School, and you therefore know her strong will and passion, sense of purpose, and drive to do good. She provided for many good causes and formed numerous friendships through her life’s journey, which proudly took her on adventures overseas that sparked her curiosity and zest for life. It also enlightened her to the challenges of the world and charged her to make a difference.
It is particularly meaningful to gather here, at The McGillis School, named in honor of Dick and Joanne. Celebrating its 30th year, McGillis has grown to its current level of success in large part due to the philanthropic efforts and heartfelt advocacy of Dick and Joanne. Joanne, in particular, was drawn to education and dedicated to providing joyful learning to children. She believed that education changed lives, and she understood the need for a school like McGillis in the Salt Lake Valley. Joanne and Dick recognized those early families of the JCC Elementary School as partners, and together, found a home for those students and families who launched the earliest days of the School in 1990. It was due to Joanne and Dick’s generosity, added with the advocacy of some of you here today, that the JCC Elementary School was able to grow and eventually acquire and renovate the Douglas Elementary School.
Community interest and demand rapidly grew for our unique values-based education, encouraging the School to build an expansion that would serve even more students. Joanne and Dick, of course, stepped up again in a major way, inspiring other community members through their Tzedakah to provide the resources to build and grow to become The McGillis School we now know. Looking around this room today, I know how many of you were involved directly with Joanne in acquiring the Douglas School, or years later in facilitating the School’s expansion. The relationships built between us foster our collective pride in McGillis. We were champions for a great cause, and our partnerships and friendships with Joanne facilitated connections amongst us all, something I’m certain grew as a delight to Joanne.
cShe visited regularly, seeing every play, concert, and event she could attend. She also created special moments that she maintained over the years and were cherished by McGillis students, including passing out taffy before Thanksgiving Break and handing out cookies to each student during the final week of the school year. Joanne attended every commencement ceremony, gifting each departing 8th grader a copy of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Joanne wanted our students to know history, to understand the challenges of humanity, and to stand for democracy. She was passionate about human rights and wanted all McGillis students to stand for inclusion, social justice, and belonging. Her heart fluttered on a visit this past school year when she asked a 2nd grader what they were learning, and the student replied, “We’re learning about empathy.” Joanne nearly fell over backwards. She could not imagine a more important thing for students to learn in the little school she helped find a home for and grow to what it is today.
It was an annual treat to meet our Kindergarten students for the first time—for both her and our youngest learners. There was always mystery and wonder among these 5-year-olds as they anticipated this first meeting with Mrs. McGillis, the woman for whom the school was named. Joanne would sometimes share with the students that she helped to build the School. One year a Kindergartner immediately responded, “Was the wheelbarrow heavy to push around?” Joanne would hear lines such as this from students and remember and repeat them forever, laughing or marveling at their humor and wonder.
Joanne was supportive, she challenged appropriately, she presented ideas to make the School better, she was a fierce advocate for us collectively, and for many of us individually. She cared about our wellbeing. She was hurt anytime we were hurting. She wanted to do what she could to help any of us in need. She always checked in on our community, asking me often how our teachers were doing, or how was a certain family she’d heard about, or are we taking good care of this particular teacher or family? Joanne sunk into the details because the tiniest detail of the School mattered deeply to her.
Joanne’s final visits to the School in the fall of 2021 were, in my experience, some of her best. She attended our 30th Anniversary Storytelling Event last November, in which we heard six stories centered on our six values. The storytellers represented students, parents, teachers, and former trustees. Two weeks later, Joanne came to hand out taffy, as she always did, just before Thanksgiving Break, touring classrooms and visiting students before taking her spot near where the tree stands in her honor today. Joanne greeted each and every student as she handed them taffy and remarked that maybe next year she’d just get the blue kind and skip the yellow so the students didn’t have such a difficult time choosing. She was full of energy and vigor during these final visits, and her heart left completely filled.
Joanne peacefully passed away the next month. In our final conversation, she expressed her immense pride in what The McGillis School has grown to be. How it’s grown in size, how it’s matured over time, how it’s perceived, the purpose it stands for, what we instill in our students, the exponential impact it gives to the greater world. She never imagined it would become what it is today. She shared the pure love she felt for the School and all those associated with it—our alumni, our alumni families, our faculty and staff (past and present), our founders, current students, and families. We all were a part of her heart.
I had many instances standing with Joanne when a former teacher, student, or parent would walk up to greet her. Inevitably, the visitor would inform Joanne about what they or their child are doing today, and how much the School changed their lives. They thanked her profusely for making McGillis a possibility for them. It was an experience they could not replace, a place that could not be forgotten, a place that propelled them to be who they are ―not just professionally, but at their core, in their values, in their actions, in their hearts.
How many of us can leave the world saying we’ve left behind a school? A school that teaches children to do good and kind deeds, brings together families, fosters community, celebrates the sweetness of our world, and collaboratively solves problems in our community. Joanne helped to make this possible. What a unique legacy. What a unique life. What a fortune we share to have called Joanne our friend.