Well-known and respected figure in Larne church and educational circles

George Gillespie, who has died at the age of 87, was a well-known and respected figure in education, church and community circles in Larne over the decades.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 20th July 2021, 1:05 pm
George and June Gillespie.
George and June Gillespie.

He was one of the original teachers at Greenland Intermediate School (now Larne High School) when it opened in 1957, where he taught history and geography. He became Vice Principal in 1977, remaining so until he retired in 1993. His first year of teaching was spent at Central Primary in Carrick, the remainder of his teaching career in Larne

He was also a leading figure in the Presbyterian community in Larne, serving as an elder in Craigy Hill Presbyterian Church for over 50 years.

George Luke Gillespie was born on 13 September 1933 and brought up in the townland of Ballylummin, Ahoghill, the eldest child of David and Maggie Gillespie, nee Craig.

He grew up with his two younger siblings, Lila (born in 1935) and Roy (born in 1939) and often reflected that it had been a happy home.

George’s father was well known and respected in his local community being prominent in the work of his local church, First Ahoghill Presbyterian, and having leadership in the Orange Order.

The young George attended Longstone Primary School and showed academic promise from an early stage. He was proud to be one of the early beneficiaries of Butler’s education act in 1944, which had extended academic opportunity to the working classes. Though from a humble background, he earned a scholarship to Ballymena Academy and started there with his lifelong friend Bobby Bonar - who felt that he and George starting at the Academy were like a couple of country gulls among the elite. They both thrived at the Academy and progressed to university and teaching careers and both later wrote a history of their respective local Presbyterian churches. George received a scholarship from the Antrim Board and read the Arts at Queen’s University of Belfast. Upon completion of his primary degree in 1955, he studied for a Diploma in Education at the same institution. George met his future wife June Lowe when she was a nurse training in Belfast while he was a student at Queen’s. They married in 1957 and had 58 years sharing life together as a close couple; in later years he was his wife’s carer, something he did with great selflessness.

After graduation at Queen’s, George secured a job offer teaching in Central Primary School, Carrickfergus, following a cricket match in which he participated with the late DJ McCartney, principal of Central Primary. These were the days before interviews and assessment panels! After one year of teaching at Central, George moved to Larne to commence teaching at the now Larne High School and lived in Larne for the rest of his life.

George’s holidays as a youth were spent at the farm of his Craig grandparents at the Glebe, Ahoghill, working in the fields and especially making hay while the sun shone. He was deeply influenced by his two uncles, David and Eddie Craig. The former taught him the value of hard work - often the lunch was brought out to the field and had to be gulped down quickly to get back to work. David did not like any interruption to the work routine and on occasions when a meal was eaten in the farmhouse, and his nephew would tune in to the cricket on his wireless, his uncle David would have looked over at him, not too pleased, and said about the wireless and the cricket “is that really necessary?”

The second uncle, Eddie, a very fine cobbler by trade, taught his young nephew the value of recreation, and he shared with George a love of English literature and poetry.

George Gillespie kept that balance of hard work and recreation throughout his life. For 36 years he taught in Larne High School and was only off sick once, regularly working from 8am to 6pm as well as doing the school timetable over his summer holidays for many years in the days before computers.

But he also made time to pursue recreational interests - he played cricket for Galgorm and later for Larne, played rugby for Randalstown, was secretary of Larne Historical Society, read and collected many books, listened to music - everything from Ulster Scots accordion bands to gospel hymns and Psalms and BBC3 Classical - took a keen interest in local politics and was very involved in the life and work of his local church at Craigy Hill.

When Craigy Hill Presbyterian Church was being established in the new estate, he served initially as secretary, and then as an elder for over 50 years, being its first clerk of session for approximately 15 years from 1965. He also taught Bible class for many years, preached when opportunities arose and was a keen theologian. He wrote many articles for church magazines and two books. He also regularly completed the cryptic crossword in the Daily telegraph winning several national prizes.

As a teacher he sought to guide pupils into the right way and always admired those who were perhaps not the most gifted academically but who always gave their best and so when he retired the Gillespie award for endeavour was founded in his memory at Larne High School.

When he retired from teaching , he gave of his time freely in door to door gospel outreach work, in helping with the local Citizens Advice Bureau and in participating in a Department of Education committee and willingly gave of his time to his family being a role model to his grandchildren growing up. His kindly, sympathetic and wise advice and counsel whether by letter, phone call or email, benefitted many.

In his later years he co-authored the life story of Jackson Buick, former Minister of Craigyhill Presbyterian church, evangelist and later prison chaplain in 2001. In 2005 he wrote a history of Craigy Hill Presbyterian, this completed after he had major surgery for oral cancer the year before and had been dangerously ill.

At his funeral service in Craigy Hill Presbyterian, the family paid tribute to his Christian character and integrity and thanked the medical and health support staff who did much to make his life easier in recent years, particularly the staff of Inver House where George spent the last week of his life.

The funeral service was conducted by Rev. Ben Preston of Craigy Hill Presbyterian and interment followed at Larne Cemetery. Donations in lieu of flowers were to MacMillan Cancer Support c/o E. W. Ramsey, Upper Main Street, Larne.

George Gillespie is survived by his son, David, daughter in law, Karen, grandchildren Peter, Alistair (and his wife Kirsteen) and James and great grandchildren Angus and Esther.