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Sarah "Tay" Anderson Gillespie

Sarah Anderson "Tay" Gillespie fully lived a life of 94 years with gusto, tenacity, accomplishment, service, and love. On Sunday December 16 she died quietly and peacefully at her home on the banks of the Strong River, which she had shared with her husband of 64 years until his death last year. She was surrounded by her children Julie, Guy T., Sarah Dabney, and Gordon. It occurred to them that perhaps it was the first thing she ever did quietly.

Many people knew Tay as the founder, director, and inspiration for Strong River Camp & Farm. Her vision in 1973 was to create a magical place where children could learn about themselves and nature, gain confidence, be treated with respect as individuals, make lifelong friends, and develop an appreciation for simple pleasures in an increasingly technological and impersonal world. She also wanted to share with children her lifelong fascination with other cultures, by recruiting counselors from all over the world. For tens of thousands of children over the past 45 years, her vision became a lasting reality in the living of their own lives.

Tay's dream did not just happen on its own; she made it happen by force of will. She had a clear perspective of what she wanted to build; she was always thinking of new and better ways to do things; she embraced the unorthodox; and she had a way of getting people to follow her and become part of the team. People who knew her would prefer to try stopping a locomotive than a determined Tay.

No one should have been surprised that Tay, at the age of 49, embarked on the adventure of starting a new business from scratch. Her entire life she had welcomed challenges, loved meeting new people and experiencing new things, and seized opportunities to work with people to create something for the benefit of others.

Tay was born May 18, 1924 to parents Julia Sadler and Dabney Benjamin Anderson, the second-youngest of seven siblings. Raised in the tiny town of Pontotoc, Mississippi, she refused to have an "ordinary" childhood. At the age of eight, she started her own savings account expressly to travel abroad some day. At 10, she cajoled pilot Dean Faulkner to forego the one-dollar fare he normally charged for taking people on a short flight over Pontotoc in his bi-plane. By the age of 13, she somehow had a regular column in the local newspaper.

Tay followed her sisters to Belhaven College and after graduating in 1945 worked as Director of Christian Education in Presbyterian churches in Meridian, MS, and Columbus, GA and was then Camp Director for Camp Montreat for Girls in North Carolina. During this time she travelled widely in Europe. She never lost her interest in seeing new places and meeting people from other cultures.

Tay had met Guy T. Gillespie, Jr during high school while attending a summer youth conference at Belhaven College. She married him on January 22, 1953 in the First Presbyterian Church of Pontotoc in a ceremony conducted by her future father-in-law. They lived in St. Louis and Ann Arbor while Guy completed medical fellowships before returning to Jackson to make their home.

Tay was active with the Junior League and the Symphony League, and started a ladies investment club called RH&T (Rumors, Hunches and Tips). The Gillespies were founding members of Covenant Presbyterian Church and Tay was the Sunday School teacher for the College Class for many years. She was a member of Fondren Presbyterian Church at the time of her death.

Tay was president of the PTA and became so interested in public education that she ran for the State Legislature on a platform to keep public schools open for all during turbulent times in the early 1960s.

Described as a dynamo and recognized as someone who could make big things happen, Tay was asked to take on several large civic projects. Most notably, she took over the Mississippi Arts Festival in 1965 and grew it from a small local affair to a three-day event that brought world-class talent in the performing arts to Jackson. The New York Times' coverage quoted Tay as saying that she intended the Festival's color-blind ticket sales to be treated as normal, noting that it was among the first major cultural events in the state to be racially integrated. Few people outside her family knew the courage required of her to stand up for this at that time.

Tay's husband Dr. Guy T. Gillespie, Jr, and all of her siblings predeceased her. Remarkably, three of her sisters, aged 91 to 100, died earlier this same year. She is survived by her children Julie Gillespie Adkisson (Bill) of Conway, AR, and their sons Knowles and Hunter (Sarah) and great-grandson William; Guy T. Gillespie III (Lele) and their children Ty, Caroline, and Grace; Sarah Dabney Gillespie of Pinola, MS; and Gordon Gillespie (Jean) of Birmingham, AL and their children Sarah Beth, Ryan, and Rebecca. She is also survived by sister-in-law Virginia Brock, many nieces and nephews and God-children Joe Irby and Elizabeth Neill as well as thousands of happy campers and counselors around the world.

Tay was predeceased by longtime friends and helpers Susie Thompson and Magnolia and Jenora Black and she is survived by Teresa Brent, Doris McLeod, Barbara Parnell and Ulysses Brent.

Funeral services are scheduled at Fondren Presbyterian Church on Friday December 21 at 10:00 a.m., with visitation immediately following.

Memorials may be made to Fondren (3220 Old Canton Road, Jackson MS 39216) or to the Gillespie Endowment in Medicine at UMMC (2500 N. State St., Jackson MS 39216).


Sarah "Tay" Anderson Gillespie
December 16, 2018





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