Early Monticello African-American pioneer passes away
Monticello and Drew County have lost another pioneer. After a lengthly illness, Rev. Ronald “Shay” Gillespie passed away Saturday at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff. He was 61.
Known about town for both his community activism and his preaching, Gillespie was the current pastor of Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church in Wilmar as well as a co-owner with wife Sherrie of the Head of the Class Childcare and Learning Center, located at 119 South Boyd Street.
He graduated high school on 1973 from Little Rock Central and enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. In the very best way, the city and all of Southeast Arkansas would never be the same.
Gillespie graduated from the UAM with a double major in Physical Education and Speech Education and Dramatic Arts in 1978. While there, he became the first African-American student to serve as sports editor of both the student newspaper and yearbook. In his honor and now in his memory, the Shay Gillespie/Phi Beta Sigma Scholarship has been endowed at UAM.
The years on University Drive were but a beginning for the man whose legacy stretches far and wide in Monticello. In the late 1980s, he became the first African-American sports editor of the Advance-Monticellonian. And in the spring of 1990, he was among the first two African-Americans ever elected to the Monticello City Council, serving until 1996 when Sherrie succeeded him.
“I never served with Shay in public office, “Monticello Mayor David Anderson said, “but I served with his wife Sherrie. I have only the utmost respect for for Shay’s entire family. Monticello has lost a treasure.”
From 1990-2001, Gilliespie served as advisor of a community youth organization he founded called “Young People Thinking Ahead.” During that period, he directed a total of more than 1,100 young people in grades 4 through 12, according to his obituary.
Gillespie turned to the ministry in 2003. He preached his first sermon in March of that year and was ordained as a minister in January 2005. In September 2010, he was installed as the pastor of the Mount Tabor MBC, where he remained until his death.
In 2006, he became a published author with a book entitled “…And A Little Child Shall Lead Them.” During that same period, he recorded a live CD sermon entitled, “It’s Church Time.” He hosted a weekly broadcast ministry called the “Full Hour of Gospel Power,” as well as a daily broadcast called “A Few Soul-Soothing Seconds for Salvation.”
The Gillespies were chosen Man and Woman of the Year in 2009 by the Monticello-Drew County Chamber of Commerce. The couple was also among the honorees in the inaugural class of the 2013 Citizenship Awards. They were honored by The Coalition for Shared Progress and The Citizens Group of Southeast Arkansas.
For 18 years, he served as chairman of the Drew County Martin Luther King Celebration, sponsored by the NAACP. In 2011, he was recognized by the Drew County branch of that organization as an NAACP Lifetime Member.
During UAM’s Homecoming in 2010, he was honored with the UAM Achievement and Merit Award. He was chairman of the UAM African-American Alumni Association, and was a member of Omicron Omicron Sigma Graduate Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and UAM’s Centennial Circle, to name a few of the many groups Gillespie touched wile living here.
For 19 years, the Gillespies have been owners of Head of the Class, which they turned into one of the most productive programs in South Arkansas. In April of 2016, they successfully opened the G-Plex SuBercenter on the grounds of their preschool center.
Gillespie was born Aug. 10, 1955, in Little Rock to the late Ozelma Butler and James Gillespie Sr. He was preceded in death by his two brothers, James Gillespie Jr. and Lee Andrew Miller, and granddaughter Bri’Juana Cavaness.
Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Sherrie Rogers Gillespie of Monticello; two sons, Kelin Gillespie of Corpus Christi, Texas and Dwight Cavaness, Jr. of Little Rock; a daughter, Ashia (LaKendrick) Woods of Monticello; six grandchildren, Ke’Unna Gillespie and Kylah Gillespie, both of Bartlett, Tenn., Desirae Cavaness of Conway, Malik Webb and Alexis Woods of Monticello and Mikayla Cavaness of Little Rock; four sisters, Gloria Jean James, Barbara (Willie) Buchanan and Denise Gillespie, all of Little Rock, and Shenia Miller of Conway; and two brothers, Ray Gillespie of Little Rock and Melvin Miller of Conway.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church with Rev. D.J. Buffington officiating. Burial will follow in Oakland Cemetery. The visitation is from 6:30-8 p.m. Friday evening at Morning Star MBC.