For those that knew her, Joan Gillings' life was marked by tremendous generosity — of her financial resources, her time and her caring spirit.
Gillings, one of the namesakes of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, died on Feb. 18 at the age of 75. She is remembered by both family and the UNC community for her philanthropy and the continual dedication to the causes that she valued most.
“Our mother left behind an incredible legacy of charitable giving of her time, energy and money,” her children, John Casey, Paul Casey and Susan Gross said in a statement. “We are extremely proud of her efforts and will work hard to carry on this legacy in a way that will make her as proud of us as we are of her.”
In 2007, Gillings and her former husband, Dennis, announced their $50 million gift to UNC’s School of Global Public Health.
Barbara Rimer, dean of the Gillings School of Public Health, described this gift as “transformative,” and Joan Gillings’ care for the school as “exceptional.”
“She was a very engaged, excited, enthusiastic donor who was really a great spokesperson for the school and for the students,” Rimer said.
Beyond Gillings’ role as a donor, she and Rimer quickly developed a friendship. Rimer said she and her husband soon met Gillings’ children, as well as her grandchildren. She said Gillings had a way of taking people under her wing.
"Joan really had a big tent in how she approached people, and she kind of collected people,” Rimer said. “We got collected. I’m saying that in a really positive way.”
Gillings also enjoyed opportunities to learn about how students were working to enhance health and environmental equity, Rimer said. She added that Gillings wanted to listen to and engage with students’ personal stories.
Gillings loved “the kids,” as she called them, said Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company — of which Gillings was also an avid supporter.
“I think she saw the underdogs as people who were worth fighting for, and investing in our students was one of the ways to do that,” Rimer added.
Gillings was particularly passionate about helping students achieve their dreams, Rimer said. Gillings went beyond what was expected of her, Rimer added, and she thinks students noticed Gillings’ authenticity.
Rimer said she sees Joan’s legacy as not only her financial generosity, but her engaged, caring spirit. This spirit, Rimer said, impacted social causes even beyond the University.
One such cause was Musical Empowerment, an organization that provides music lessons to students whose families would not be able to access them otherwise. Gillings was an adviser, philanthropist and volunteer for this program.
Rimer said though small, this organization is able to make a big difference in children’s lives.
“There were a lot of people who are so grateful to her,” Rimer said. “And it’s not only the money — it’s that she cared about the stories associated with every one of those organizations and how they would change lives, because in the end, that’s a lot of what a University is about, right?”
Gillings’ children added that they have been struck by the expression of support they have seen since her passing.
“It has been humbling for us to hear the many ways that our mother had an impact on the lives of countless individuals,” they said in the statement.
Gillings had her "fingerprints" on many parts of the University, Rimer said.
Gillings served on a number of boards and committees, including the Morehead Planetarium Advisory Council and UNC-Wilmington’s Board of Visitors. She was also particularly involved with the theater at UNC.
In 2017, Gillings gifted the University PlayMakers Repertory Company and Department of Dramatic Art a $12 million endowment. Now bearing her name, the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art has been able to create new fellowships, and to lean into both play development and community engagement.
During PlayMakers' production of "My Fair Lady," Gillings and Benesch attended a “Table Talk Tea” complete with ornate hats in the style of the musical. Gillings lent three hats for the occasion, Benesch recalled — one of which she let Benesch keep. Benesch said that in her eyes, the hat encapsulates Gillings' personality.
“It’s a slick, fashionable, original hat,” Benesch said. “I’m so glad that I get to keep that piece of her and her spirit.”
Gillings’ generosity enabled PlayMakers to make great strides toward change and sustainability. She was also a member of the PlayMakers Advisory Council, serving as chairperson from 2013-2019. She always wanted to talk about what was possible for PlayMakers, Benesch said.
“There was always that kind of forward thinking, 'Let’s get it done,'” Benesch said. “To have that in someone who is chairing the advisory council is just great. It was a great partnership that way.”
The impact of the Gillings’ gift to PlayMakers — through both programmatic and student funding — will be felt for decades, Benesch added.
“Her legacy in her passing will only get richer,” Benesch said. “Not only the bricks and mortar of this building that bears her name, but in the work and the students who come through here.”
These sentiments were echoed by Gillings' children.
“We will honor her memory by striving to walk in her shoes as best we can,” they said in the statement. “As she often said, ‘Can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can try.’”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.