Editor’s Note: Great features are often written in circles. By the end of the story, you get to reflect back on the beginning and the journey in between. Dennis Gildea brought me into the journalism world when I first joined the Communications/Sports Journalism major. Now, as graduation looms, I’m remembering how paramount he was in my own development. I’d always bring my stories to him to be marked up in red pen, he’d tell me what I could do better. I wish he could mark this up, too. It was the little things along the way, like taking time out of his own sabbatical to coach me from a distance and give me the honest feedback I so relied on. My goal heading into this was to really capture who Gildea was as a professor, journalist and human being with a focus on his impact on his students. I hope that this would earn me ‘bonus points’ by his merit. This is for you, Coach.
By Evan Wheaton
The highest honor one can receive on the campus of Springfield College.
That’s why Dennis Gildea went by that nickname.
And to his credit, he coached generations upon generations of journalists, refining their craft in the classroom. He upheld the honor and roll of the coach each and every semester over the past 20 years.
Because that’s what mattered most to him.
Gildea died on May 3 after battling a glioblastoma– a rare, fast-growing brain tumor.
COSJ students of the past and professors of the present all remember how Gildea created the major from scratch. And after 20 years of coaching his students, the legacy he established burns brightly on Alden Street.
Natalie Goodale ’02 was running late.
She never was quite on time. That was evident by religiously showing up to Gildea’s classes at 1:05 p.m. during her college days and being met with his coined phrase.
She hurried toward the Sierra Grille in Northampton, Mass. As she drew close to the red brick building, she saw Gildea through the window sitting in the usual hardwood high-top table.
She pushed open the doors and entered the restaurant, illuminated by golden lights dotted around the interior while patrons bustled around, laughing, talking, living.
Catching her breath and meeting her former professor, Gildea shook his head, smirking.
“Sorry I’m late,” Goodale said.
“Slacker,” he said.
The two periodically met at breakfast places to catch up, but Sierra Grille was Gildea’s favorite location – and in turn, it became Goodale’s as well.
Gildea ordered his bitter Indian pale ale and the two split an order of scallops.
“I knew him as my professor on campus, but then after I graduated, I think what was special was the fact that since I then went into the profession, now our relationship had evolved into a professional adult one; let’s meet up from time to time,” Goodale said.
They talked about journalism.
Gildea shared stories about Springfield College and changes made as COSJ grew over the years, bringing Goodale back in the loop. She spoke of her work at the Community Newspaper Company in Concord, Mass. and the 20 weekly papers she helped put out.
They gave one another feedback and discussed book and article ideas.
“There aren’t necessarily a ton of people in your life who share the same dreams of writing something, especially nonfiction I would say,” Goodale said. “I felt we had similar goals in terms of what we wanted to write one day and we both talked about those ideas. And that’s definitely something I’m going to miss.”
They’d gossip and people watch through the window from their little journalism corner. The professor/student dynamic changed. It evolved since Goodale graduated. The two were equals.
“The difference in age just kind of disappeared and what was left is what we had in common,” Goodale said.
Gildea always kept a strong investment in his students long after they departed Alden Street.
What a drag.
The lines were too long.
Matt Tuthill ‘03 wasn’t interested in the Physical Therapy or Physical Education programs. He was only standing with his friends amongst the crowd in Judd because he had nothing better to do. Springfield College wasn’t even on his radar, his friends were visiting and he tagged along just to hang out.
“I was a pretty aimless high school kid and I followed in my brother’s footsteps,” Tuthill said. “He wanted to be a writer, and he was an excellent writer – and his path to that was he was just going to major in English and study literature at a college here in Long Island.
“I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll do that, too.’”
That was the plan, until his friend noticed an empty table with one man sitting behind it. He had no lines, no one coming up to him.
“Look Matt, sports journalism. You can come here too; you want to write,” Tuthill’s friend said.
It beat standing in line. Tuthill thought he might as well head over.
He would entertain the man at the table. Why not?
Tuthill approached Gildea. The two exchanged formalities, and Gildea asked his questions.
“Eh, what do you want to do? You want to be on TV? You want to be on radio? You like to write?”
Tuthill was absolute in his area of focus.
“I want to write,” Tuthill said.
Gildea was the salesman that didn’t need Tuthill’s sale. He always told his students to be blunt when they had to be blunt, and it was no different then.
“Yeah, we could teach you how to do that,” Gildea said. “It’s going to be a great program.”
He needed to recruit students for the newly formed COSJ major, but he wouldn’t talk it up.
“There’s something really compelling about that to me,” Tuthill said. “That guy must have it because he’s not overselling it.”
Gildea had it. And he gave it to his students in a brilliant, albeit devious way.
“He gives you that real splash of cold water and he was so great at that,” Tuthill said. “He was a master at apparently belittling you but doing it in such a way that it was because he cared so much.”
He built students up by knocking them down. Gildea was never too harsh, but always had that way of lovingly bashing his students, always challenging them to be held to a higher standard.
“That was really beneficial, because if you can’t handle that, this is not a good career for you,” Tuthill said. “He was doing a great service to everyone’s work he dismantled in that fashion.”
Tuthill wrote a story on David Kopay, the first former NFL player to openly come out as gay after retirement, visiting campus to talk to students about coming out and the state of the NFL.
Some time after it had been turned in, Tuthill saw an email in his inbox. From Gildea – his heart sank.
His mind was racing. What did he do now? How bad was it?
Here comes Coach.
Tuthill opened the email. It was two lines of text.
“Matt, I have been grading freshmen comp papers all day and thinking that there is just no hope. And then I read your Kopay story and you made my weekend. There’s hope yet. Thanks.”
Sweet relief. Tuthill felt over the moon that he got away without being reprimanded, and even earned some praise.
“The way he was so hard, that made his approval that much more prized,” Tuthill said.
It wasn’t busy.
Vin Gallo ’19 was sorting mail at the post office in the basement of Locklin Hall. He exited the office of the mail room and entered the hallway to head to storage.
Gallo encountered Gildea, the latter making his way to the printing office. They were the only two down there in the empty, quiet bowels of Locklin.
Just a freshman and his professor.
“Hey, I read you in the paper last week. It was really good, but don’t ever get in front of a big group of people and talk,” Gildea said in a serious tone. “Don’t ever do that.”
And with that, Gildea carried on with his rounds.
That was it, Gallo’s first of many encounters with Gildea outside the classroom. The first piece of guidance Gallo received.
“He didn’t mince words at all,” Gallo said. “Dennis was a very helpful and impactful teacher for me because I came onto campus as a freshman with a lot of confidence issues, and I didn’t really have too much of an identity.”
Before he found writing, Gallo felt lost. He didn’t have that guidance in high school, the personal attention he needed. At a small school like Springfield College, he was able to develop that close bond with his professor.
In high school, Gallo had a teacher who wasn’t confident in his writing. Gildea saw the potential in his student, but also kept it real with him.
If there were one thing Gildea didn’t tolerate, it was, in his own words, “bullshit.”
“For Dennis to go outright and say, ‘You don’t really have a future in TV, but you can go somewhere with this writing,’” Gallo said, taking a pause to reminisce. “He definitely reminded me in a variety of ways that I found what I’m supposed to do and to keep running with it.”
Gallo ran with writing, becoming an editor for The Springfield Student and having meetings with Gildea in his office. Like a player and his coach breaking down film, the two went over all his written work, even stories from internships.
“He was able to identify my strengths,” Gallo said. “Between the paper and class time, he was able to identify me quickly and said, ‘Don’t waste your time in broadcast when your gift is in writing.’”
Before long, Gallo had newfound confidence in print journalism. And Gildea built him up the same way he built up the major.
“The first step in building something great is getting yourself to believe that you really have something,” Gallo said.
Gallo was given back an assignment from his Press in America class in which he earned a B. But written in red ink was a large D- over the paper, a reminder for Gallo to not let it go to his head.
“I was very slow catching on to when he was being serious and when he was just goofing around,” Gallo said.
“He was a goofball. He really was.”
Gildea made Weiser Hall feel like home, because the journalism industry always was his home. He grew up in Pennsylvania with a family run newspaper, the Coaldale Observer, which ran from 1910-1958. He was a newsroom guy, and an old school one at that.
If one were to peer inside his office, they’d often find Gildea wearing his jeans, a sport coat with patches on the elbows, media stuff all over the office and his iconic orange mesh hat with the letters “Press” across the bill.
Journalism was more than just his passion; it was his life devotion. When he came to Springfield College in the mid 1990s before there was a journalism major, he got straight to work to create one.
“He was the person that conceptualized the major. He was the person that convinced the powers that be to want this major,” Marty Dobrow said. “That’s difficult to do; change in higher education is a slow process, sometimes a glacial process. And he had a lot of people that he needed to convince.
“But he had this vision that this could really work at Springfield College.”
A new major needed new professors. Gildea posted a job ad in The Daily Hampshire Gazette, where Dobrow worked as a sportswriter.
Dobrow called Gildea, left a message and eventually heard back. After sending in materials and running through an interview process, COSJ made its first hire.
On a cold day this past April, Dobrow and fellow COSJ professor Kyle Belanger journeyed to a medical rehab facility in Greenfield to visit Gildea.
Belanger wanted to see him no matter the condition. But he was still unsettled.
“I didn’t want to see my friend hurting,” Belanger said.
They made their way down the hall and turned left into Gildea’s room.
Gildea’s wife of 40 years, Constance “CW” Wicklund, was sitting at the foot of the bed. She saw the two professors, the corners of her mouth turned northward. She didn’t say anything, she rose and looked at her husband.
Gildea turned his head to the left, and smiled as much as he could at the sight of Dobrow. His voice was like radio static.
Dobrow returned the greeting.
“Hey, Den,” he said.
Gildea looked at Belanger, his smile fell like an anvil. He extended a crooked right pointer finger at his friend of 10 years.
“You,” Gildea said. “You get the hell out of here.”
In that moment, Belanger felt relief.
“I needed that so much. And I think Dennis knew that too,” Belanger said. “That was the nature of our relationship.”
Belanger never had any intention of becoming a college professor. He was a former high school English teacher with over a decade of professional media experience, and thought teaching students he was already working with on an internship level alongside his friend, Dobrow, would be a great experience.
Since then, Belanger has been a COSJ staple, and he credits much of his success to Gildea’s hospitality.
“This is a guy who made Weiser Hall feel more than a place where I could work,” Belanger said.
Gildea brought his old school journalism to the major, while Belanger brought the new age of digital multimedia. And students learned everything in between.
“He knew what it meant to wait for hours after a game for a coach to come out of a locker room,” Belanger said. “He knew what it meant to bust your a– over a story and have the entire town split down the middle. Some people wanted to buy him coffee, the others wanted to throw coffee in his face.”
It’s been 20 years since Gildea first recruited Dobrow. The program has come a long way. Under the leadership of Laura Dubowski, the newest addition to the COSJ staff, SCTV3 expanded its broadcast to a second sports show within her first three years.
The radio station, established in 1951, was down between 1955 and 1959. From there, equipment went down, locations moved, and for a time, the frequency was lost to the community. Belanger has taken charge of the radio station and has allowed it to reach new heights.
The Springfield Student introduced a podcast last year, partnered with Hoophall and attends the nationwide ACP conference in California every year.
And it all started with Gildea having his own vision of teaching journalism – his livelihood – to new students.
“Would some people still have gone into journalism? Sure. They would have maybe found other programs and maybe those would have been good programs,” Dobrow said. “But, I think there is a certain magic that has happened on Alden Street with the little journalism program that could”
“None of that magic would have happened without Dennis Gildea.”
At the end of his life, Gildea’s vision and everything he built at Springfield College has never been in better shape.
And it’s still going.
“This program is growing and is stronger,” Dubowski said. “He had this vision, laid the groundwork and made it happen.”
What started as a big dream at a small school became so much more.
“How inspirational he was to have the vision and to start that whole ball running and to be its support for 20 years,” Dubowski said. “And to have fun doing it.”
Gildea may be gone, but great coaches leave legacies.
And his lies with COSJ.