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Richard Gillespie, founder of Towson University theater department, dies

Charles Richard "Dick" Gillespie, founder of Towson University's academic theater program who directed student productions for three decades, died of complications from dementia April 2 at the Blakehurst Retirement Community. The former Timonium resident was 85.

He was the husband of former Towson University President Maravene S. Loeschke, who died last year.

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Born in Baltimore and raised on St. George's Avenue, he was the son of Charles F. Gillespie and his wife, Katharine Fiege.

He earned a bachelor's degree at Principia College in Illinois. He received his master's degree and doctorate from the University of Iowa, where he studied the playwright George Bernard Shaw and later directed many plays written by Shaw.

He served in the Army in Korea in a Signal Corps unit, where he learned to box, and left military service as a sergeant. He later incorporated his military experience into a play, "Carnivori," produced at Baltimore's Corner Theater.

After working in theater at Glassboro State College in New Jersey, Dr. Gillespie came to what is now Towson University in 1961. He began teaching theater courses and soon established an academic department in 1963. He later founded a master's program.

"He shared his passion for theater, and it was contagious," said actor John Glover, one of his students, who went on to win a Tony Award for his performance in "Love! Valour! Compassion!"

In 1966, Dr. Gillespie was named a professor and, four years later, became dean of students. He assisted in the creation of a Black Students Union and a Women's Center at the school.

"He is a rather slight man, with gold-rimmed glasses and a neat, gray beard," wrote The Baltimore Sun in a 1997 profile. "The theater, he says, has been his love ever since he was pressed into a spur-of-the-moment acting role while a college freshman. 'Acting was not a lifelong ambition. I went to see a play, and they were short-staffed.'"

He said his found his calling after that experience.

"It was the perfect outlet for a man who considers himself shy," said The Sun article. "'I always was introverted,'" he says. "'One of the worst punishments in the world is for me to have to go to a party.' Acting, he says, allows exploration of oneself and allows him to step outside of himself. 'An artist has to pull from himself. I fell in love with the artist life.'"

While at the school he worked to get funding and construction for its fine-arts building.

Dr. Gillespie, who taught courses on acting, directing, theater history and dramatic literature and theory, once said he could be tough on students — something he'd rather do than have them appear on stage unprepared.

"Dick created a theater department that grew exponentially," said a colleague, John Manlove. "Dick had a fine mind and looked for intelligent answers. He was a brilliant teacher and was one of the most generous persons I have ever met. He supported his colleagues, shared advice and did whatever it took."

While at Towson, he met and married Dr. Loeschke, a former dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication who went on to become Towson University's president in 2012.

He retired in 1998 and accompanied his wife to Mansfield University in Pennsylvania in 2007, where she served as president until returning to Towson. At Mansfield, he became a boxing coach.

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"Dick and Maravene were identical in their values," said Richard Vatz, a friend and Towson rhetoric professor. "His students swore by him. He was a decent and honorable individual who was always trying to help students. On the personal side, he was pleasant and witty."

In 1991, he wrote "The James Adams Floating Theater," a history of a barge fitted as a theater that called at the small towns of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and the Carolinas. The Adams Floating Theater became the inspiration for the Edna Ferber novel and the 1927 Jerome Kern operetta "Show Boat."

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

Survivors include his son, Douglas Gillespie of Manchester; four sisters, Katharine Ann Stultz of Lynchburg, Va., Mary Elizabeth Bresse of Texas, Jacqueline Poole of Louisiana and Linda Talley of Elkan, N.C.; and five grandchildren. An earlier marriage to Shirley Dove ended in divorce. A daughter, Joy Onstot, died in 1997.

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