With sadness and with profound sympathy to Barbara, Robyn, William and Dayle, I write to let you know that my distinguished and much-loved predecessor, Dr Thomas W. Gillespie died last night, November 5, 2011, after a brief and sudden illness. He was 83.

thomas gillespieIn everything he did, Tom Gillespie understood his life as a gift and as a calling. Tom Gillespie was born on July 18, 1928, in Los Angeles, California, and grew up attending the Vermont Avenue Presbyterian Church in that city. From 1946–1947 he served in the US Marine Corps, where he was prompted by a chaplain to consider a calling to become a minister. On July 31, 1953, he married Barbara A. Lugenbill, who came to Princeton with him for his senior year in seminary. In 1954, Tom graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and returned to California, where he was ordained by the Presbytery of Los Angeles and was called to plant a new church at Garden Grove. He served with distinction and energy there from 1954–1966, and Tom and Barbara’s children, Robyn, William, and Dayle, were born during the Garden Grove years.

In 1966 Tom was called to be pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Burlingame, near San Francisco, a position he held until 1983. Under his leadership, 16 people from the congregation (8 men and 8 women) were called into ministry. In 1971 Tom earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from Claremont Graduate School.  Then, in 1983 Thomas Gillespie was called as Princeton Theological Seminary’s fifth president in succession to Dr. James I. McCord. He was inaugurated in March 1984, an occasion at which, by coincidence, Thomas F. Torrance was one of those invited to give a lecture.

It has been rightly said that the story of his presidency is a story of building and development—of relationships, of academic scholarship, of campus facilities, of a worshiping community, of a worldwide network of ministry. During Tom’s tenure, Princeton Seminary entered a new century, celebrated a growing and enriching diversity in its students and faculty, mourned and ministered to a nation’s national tragedy on 9/11, and contributed to theological scholarship worldwide and to the mission of the international church. As the Seminary’s leader, Tom Gillespie did not carry this responsibility alone. He had the valued support, prayers, ideas, and thinking of a wide community of scholars, students, donors, and alumni/ae, of his wife, Barbara, and his three children, and of the wider church. He had staunch friends and colleagues and the remarkable Donna Kline as his Assistant. Most important, he would constantly say that he had Jesus Christ as his cornerstone, and he accomplished his work to the honor and glory of God.

Members of the faculty remember him as one who steadfastly understood the seminary as being in service to the church. Faculty members and colleagues from those days invariably begin their assessment of Tom’s presidency by praising his excellence as a pastor. In times of personal difficulty, his sympathetic understanding and pastoral care were always extended helpfully, compassionately, and abundantly. All who were recipients of that grace were grateful for his pastoral care and will remember him with warmth.

Tom Gillespie’s legacy at the Seminary is multifaceted and deep. During his tenure, which overlapped with the longest peace time expansion of the U.S. economy, Princeton enjoyed many years of financial prosperity. With vision, Tom boldly undertook and completed the renovation of many of our historic buildings, including a major restoration of Miller Chapel. Several new buildings were built, including the Luce Library, Scheide and Templeton Halls, and the Witherspoon Apartments.  Erdman Hall was completely redesigned and renovated to be a state-of-the-art continuing education center. A multi-story parking structure was also completed.

Tom Gillespie was an innovator at every level. In a bold step, he changed the location of the faculty meetings from the Board Room in Speer Library (where the seating had been arranged by rank) to the Main Lounge of the Mackay Campus Center (with uniform seating for everyone regardless of rank). He greatly expanded the agenda of the general faculty meetings and limited that of the faculty senate and council solely to faculty appointments and promotions. He supported codifying the many customary governance practises into a revised faculty manual.  Perhaps most importantly, he increased the size and diversity of the faculty.

Professor Geddes Hanson was the only African American on the faculty when Tom Gillespie was appointed in 1983. Two years later, in 1985, Peter Paris became the first African American appointed to the faculty under his leadership, and the first occupant of the Elmer G. Homrighausen Chair in Christian Social Ethics. Soon after, Tom Gillespie supported the initiative to establish an official liaison between the Seminary and the Afro-American Studies Program at Princeton University.

During Tom Gillespie’s presidency Dr. Hanson was promoted to become the Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Congregational Ministry.  Dr. Brian Blount was appointed and promoted with tenure through the ranks to full professor in New Testament, and similarly, Dr. Cleophus LaRue joined the faculty and was promoted with tenure to become the Francis Landey Patton Associate Professor of Homiletics. The total number of African Americans on the faculty increased from one to four during Tom Gillespie’s administration.

Under Tom Gillespie’s leadership the Asian presence on the faculty was expanded and strengthened. Professor Sang Hyun Lee, the first Asian faculty member (appointed to the faculty under former president James I. McCord) was tenured and promoted through the ranks to become the first occupant of the Kyung-Chik Han Chair in Systematic Theology. That chair, partly funded by the Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Seoul, Korea, is the first chair at an American seminary to honor an Asian church leader. In 1987, Dr. Choon-Leong Seow, now the Henry Snyder Gehman Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature, joined the faculty as assistant professor and was promoted through the ranks with tenure. In 2001, Dr Eunny Patricia Lee, in Old Testament, became the first Korean woman to receive a full-time appointment to this faculty.

In 2002, Professor Luis Rivera-Pagán, a native of Puerto Rico, became the first Latino appointment to the faculty as professor of ecumenics and mission, and under Tom Gillespie’s leadership a significant partnership with Pew Charitable Trusts and Lilly Endowment Inc. developed to provide a campus office for the Hispanic Theological Initiative, a national initiative to support and train Ph.D.-level Hispanic/Latino(a) scholars and teachers.

In 1991 the South African J. Wentzel van Huyssteen joined the faculty as the first occupant of the James I. McCord Chair in Theology and Science.

When Tom Gillespie arrived in 1983, Princeton’s faculty included only three women. Dr. Freda A. Gardner, professor of Christian education emerita and director of the School of Christian Education emerita, had joined her male colleagues in 1961. The first woman tenured by the board after recommendation by the president and the faculty, she was promoted to full professor during Tom Gillespie’s presidency. Similarly, Dr. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld had joined the faculty in 1972 as assistant professor in Old Testament literature and exegesis. In Tom Gillespie’s second year as president, he appointed her to be the director of the Ph.D. Studies Program, which her administration strengthened greatly.

The third woman on the faculty at the time of Tom Gillespie’s arrival was Dr. Kathleen Elizabeth McVey who, under his leadership, was promoted through the ranks to become the Joseph Ross Stevenson Professor of Church History. One other woman scholar, Elizabeth Gordon Edwards, taught generations of Princeton seminarians Greek and New Testament exegesis as assistant professor of New Testament.

Though appointed by then-president McCord as the first woman to join the faculty at the rank of full professor and the first occupant of the Hazel Thompson McCord Chair in Historical Theology, Dr. Jane Dempsey Douglass arrived at PTS in 1985. Subsequently, she became presi­dent of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and brought much distinction to the seminary.

Three women joined the faculty during Tom Gillespie’s presidency at the rank of associate professor, being later promoted to full professorships. Abigail Rian Evans was promoted to become the Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Practical Theology and academic coordinator of field education; Beverly Roberts Gaventa became the Helen H.P. Manson Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis; and Dr. Elsie Anne McKee was appointed as the Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship.

Dr. Ellen Charry, the then Margaret W. Harmon Associate Professor of Systematic Theology; Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, the then associate professor of youth, church, and culture and director of the Tennent School of Christian Education; Dr. Nancy Duff, associate professor of theological ethics; Dr. Nancy Lammers Gross, the Arthur Sarell Rudd Associate Professor of Speech Communication in Ministry; and Dr. Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, then an associate professor of pastoral theology were all appointed during Tom Gillespie’s tenure as president.  More recently, Dr. Sally Ann Brown joined the faculty as an assistant professor of preaching and worship and Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley as an assistant professor of Old Testament. Both have subsequently been promoted.  In sum, eleven women joined Princeton Seminary’s faculty under Tom Gillespie’s presidency.

Tom Gillespie did more than anyone to strengthen and benefit the faculty with the provision of regular sabbaticals, funds for research, travel to academic and professional conferences, and other types of institutional assistance, not the least of which was provision for student research assistants.

In addition to his support for the Center of Theological Inquiry, of which he long served as Chair of the Board, he established the Karl Barth Center which is located in the Special Collections Department of the Henry Luce III Library. Characteristically and generously, Tom Gillespie has publicly supported the project for the new library.

Tom was a great supporter of the Abraham Kuyper program. Around 1995, with Rimmer de Vries, he started thinking about commemorating Kuyper’s lectures on Calvinism held at PTS in 1898. He enthusiastically supported plans for the 1998 conference. It turned out to be the largest conference held during his presidency at PTS as over 400 people from all over the world came for the celebration. The suggestion at the conference to establish an annual Kuyper Prize was quickly welcomed and made into a significant event. He supported the purchase of George Puchinger’s huge book collection which contained much material on neo-calvinism. Another memorable event was when the Kuyper Prize was extended to Prime Minister Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands. On that same day Tom quickly agreed to the proposal to establish a chair in Reformed Theology and Public Life featuring neo-calvinism.

Tom Gillespie’s presidency enabled the Seminary community to gain greater awareness of the importance of doing ministry in a global context. He supported international field education placements and internships in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean.

In 1986, the Seminary’s alumni/ae provided a generous gift to establish a chair in World Christianity named in honor of the third president, Dr. John A. Mackay. The chair provided the opportunity for the appointment of a distinguished international visiting scholar from outside North America and Western Europe to enhance the Seminary’s exposure to and interaction with new voices and issues in the global church.

Tom Gillespie also changed and benefited the Board of Trustees. The changes were most evident in committees, in which recommendations that previously would only have been heard and approved were seriously, and not uncritically, discussed. A consequence was that trustees felt a growing sense of responsibility and involvement in the Seminary’s mission. These changes were inspired by Tom Gillespie’s openness and desire for participation, and by his conviction that the Seminary and its staff needed to be genuinely accountable to a group that embodied the institution’s Presbyterian identity and was committed to its growth and well being.

These were enormous challenges, often led courageously against the prevailing culture. Tom Gillespie acted always with generosity and grace. He was sustained by his family, was constantly with his beloved Barbara, and was always devoted to his Lord.

At the time of his retirement Tom said, ''It was not an easy job. It could be draining. But I leave with a heart full of gratitude.'' We in turn thank God for such a man, such a life and such an inspiration. We send heartfelt sympathy to Barbara, Robyn, William and Dayle.


Iain R Torrance

President of Princeton Theological Seminary and Professor of Patristics

6 November 2011

It is anticipated that the Memorial Service will be on Monday, November 14, in Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton. There will be a reception at the Seminary after the Memorial Service. I will send an update subsequently about the time. The Gillespie family will designate a scholarship to which gifts may be given in honor of Tom Gillespie. I will update you on details.

The memorial service for President Gillespie will be held at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton on Monday, November 14, 2011, at 1:00 p.m., followed by a reception in the Main Lounge of the Mackay Campus Center on the Seminary’s main campus. Parking at the Seminary will be limited. There will be a private burial preceding the memorial service.

Donations marked “The President Thomas W. Gillespie Scholarship Fund” may be sent to Princeton Seminary’s Department of Seminary Relations, 64 Mercer Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, in honor of President Gillespie. Online donations can be made as well. Click here to give online. On the donation page under the “other” category, enter “Gillespie Scholarship” and the amount of your gift.

A celebration of President Gillespie’s life is being planned for a future date.

Click here for directions to Nassau Presbyterian Church.

Click here for directions to Princeton Theological Seminary.