Still going strong

WARREN – John Gillen likes to keep things simple and understated.

Nothing displays that more than the tiny office Gillen occupies as the Athletic Director at John F. Kennedy High School. Tucked in behind the ticket office next to the gymnasium that’s named after him, the work space can best be described as a cubicle. With a desk, chair and some filing cabinets in place, there’s no more than 50 square feet of walking space.

To get a view of the outside world, Gillen has to step from the office and peek through the ticket office towards a set of doors. To some it might seem a bit claustrophobic, but to Gillen it’s served with the comfort a tree house would to a young boy for decades.

“I never wanted to move,” Gillen said as he took a break from work on a late July day. “They asked me if I wanted to move down close to the main offices. I like it here. It would probably make a great bomb shelter if we ever get attacked; or a hurricane or earthquake, this would be the place to come.”

Gillen moved to the office from a nearby work space that was even smaller. To the best of his recollection, he’s been in the current office about 35 years, which was about seven years into what is now his 42nd year as athletic director.

It probably seems like only yesterday to Gillen, who is living proof that the love of work and an active mind can keep a person young at heart. Gillen doesn’t show much of his 81 years other than the usual gray hair and perhaps slower walk that are inevitable with the aging process. His mind is sharp, which it has to be to deal with the demands of a job that can be thankless and rewarding at the same time.

How he does it when most people his age have given in to retirement or infirmity is remarkable. The phone calls from parents upset about a child’s lack of playing time. The constant demands of scheduling at a time when it’s become impossible to find an area conference willing to extend JFK an invitation to the club.

The secret for Gillen is to keep physically active and tap into the energy of those around him, including his wife Gloria, and an unwavering faith in God. It starts with a workout with light weights every morning.

“Dealing with the kids,” Gillen said. “They keep you young. They’ll keep you on your toes, I’ll tell you.”

Another key to Gillen’s longevity is his humility and the accommodating manner in which he’s treated those he’s worked with all these years. Ask any JFK coach that’s had dealings with Gillen, and you won’t find one that will say a bad word about him.

“John is a very calm, easy-going guy,” said Dennis Zolciak, who coached the Eagles’ football team from 1977-90. “The thing is his heart is totally into the school. He wants what’s best for the school.”

There are generally two types of athletic directors – ones that want control of everything, including calling a few plays, and ones that take a back seat and try to make life as easy as possible for the coaches. Gillen fits the latter category to the max, always being careful to meet the demands of every coach, even if he might not agree with all the requests.

“He couldn’t do enough for you, and then some,” said Tony Napolet, the football coach from 1970-72 and 1991-2010.

Few people know Gillen better than Napolet, whom Gillen coached in football at St. Mary’s Junior High School more than 60 years ago. The two are as much a part of the athletic fabric at JFK as any person ever associated with the school.

“He’s the best part of that place,” Napolet said. “He’s been there 50 years. Since before they opened. He loves it. That place is his life.”

Gillen was raised here and graduated from St. Mary’s High School in 1950. He coached basketball and served as the school’s athletic director before moving to JFK High School when it opened in 1964. He taught and coached before replacing Jim McQuaide as athletic director in 1972.

Gillen has worked closely with each of JFK’s six football coaches prior to this season. From George Landis in 1964 to McQuaide (1965-69), followed by Napolet, Gene Nara (1973-76), Zolciak, Napolet again and Dave Pappada (2011-12). He’s begun working this year with first-year coach Jeff Bayuk.

Add the coaches of other sports, boys and girls, and you can begin to understand how many lives Gillen has touched.

“When the bricks for the school came together, John was there,” said Dennis Jasinski, basketball coach from 1978-89. “He’s a solid part of the whole thing. We always got along. He was a pleasure to work with. He’s a gentleman and a friend.”

Jasinski recalls a time when Gillen was set to scout a future basketball opponent but at the last minute had to cancel. Jasinski assumed the task of driving to Akron, which led to a surprising moment when he settled into his seat to begin taking notes.

“I went with an assistant coach and a minute before the game started, who comes walking in? I said, ‘John, I thought you couldn’t scout,” Jasinski said. “He said, ‘I told my wife I was going out for a loaf of bread.’ That’s the type of guy he was. He was always willing to help.”

Gillen doesn’t like to talk about himself. He’s more comfortable in the background, where he can let others accept the laurels of victory. He allows himself a moment of boastful pride when pointing out that each of his four sons – John, Brian, the late Tom and Jim – played on JFK football teams that made the playoffs. Brian and Tom were on the 1991 team that won the only state championship in school history.

All Gillen needs these days to remain happy is morning exercise, daily prayer, the love of friends and family and a cozy seat in his tiny office. The one that sits a few strides from the gymnasium that bears his name.

It will seem strange when the day arrives that Gillen is no longer the athletic director. Life will go on, but not quite the same.

“You’re only one part in a machine,” Zolciak said. “I’ve seen guys go, and the wheels keep turning. The great thing about John is he’s healthy, he can do things, and he’s glad he can do it. When the day comes and he leaves, the place will keep on going. I think he’s left a great legacy there.”

Retirement can be a lonely place for those that thrived on work for lengthy periods of time. Some don’t handle it well but find a way to cope. Others give in to time and fade away quickly.

Gillen has no fears when he contemplates retirement.

“A gentleman told me at one time, and I’ll never forget it,” he said. “When you retire, you know what you’re retiring from, but do you know what you’re retiring to? I’ve thought about that often. What would I do after I retire?”

Exactly how will Gillen live life when that day arrives?

“I won’t lay on the couch; I know that,” he said.