Don Gillespie Sr. has done pretty much everything you can in Revelstoke since moving here in 1953.
Successful business owner? Check. He helped bring television to the citizens of Revelstoke in the late 1950s.
President of the Chamber of Commerce? Check. Rotarian? Check — for just about 50 years.
Volunteer fire fighter and volunteer paramedic? Of course.
City alderman? Check. Mayor? Definitely. He was the youngest in B.C. when he was elected at the age of 35 in 1970.
He also portrayed Lord Revelstoke during Lord Revelstoke Days in the 80s, and Sir Sanford Fleming in the re-enactment of the Last Spike photo in 1985.
“I always liked to keep busy and be part of the community,” he told me. “I lucked out here in Revelstoke.”
Gillespie’s story begins in the Yukon, where his grandfather was one of the territory’s pioneers — having travelled north in 1898, settling near Dawson City. His father, he says, was the first white man born there. He ran the local paper and was a columnist for the Whitehorse Star.
Gillespie was born in 1934 in the hamlet of Mayo, Yukon, but he grew up in Dawson City, living in a home next door to the cabin where Robert Service, the renowned poet, once lived.
“In the winter when it got dark, you’d go to school with a flashlight,” he recalled.
When it was time to start high school, his parents thought it would better if he went elsewhere, so they sent him to Kelowna, where his grandmother lived. That alone was an epic journey. He took the paddle wheeler to Whitehorse, the train to Skagway, Alaska, a boat down to Vancouver, and then the Kettle Valley Railway to Summerland.
It was in the summer between grade 11 and 12 that Gillespie found himself in Revelstoke, but it took a bit of a journey to get there.
First, looking for work, he hitchhiked north to Kitimat. However, when he got up there, he was told there were no more jobs, so he returned south. He got a ride to Hope, where he stuck out his thumb for a ride to Penticton. The man who picked him up happened to own a mine north of Revelstoke.
“He gave me a note for the superintendent, so I had a job for the summer,” Gillespie said. “I really fell in love with the country. I fell in love with the mountains and the water.”
After graduating high school in 1953, he and some friends went to work in Glacier National Park. His friends left at the end of the summer, but Gillespie decided to stay in Revelstoke. “I got here by fate I guess. I just loved this place,” he said.
He worked various jobs in the bush. One brought him to Sidmouth, south of town, where he lived next door to the woman who wound up being his wife. Grace was a nurse who was training in Kamloops, but they would spend time together when she came home. They got married in 1956, after a year of courtship, and they’re still together, 60 years later. They have three children — Don Jr., Wade and Dina.
After moving around a bit, the family settled in Revelstoke. Gillespie decided he had enough of physical labour, and enrolled in a radio and television correspondence course. It was perfect timing — the TV business was taking off and Revelstoke’s first cable company opened in 1957 by Charlie Stevens. The next year, Gillespie went to work for him. “I turned out the guy who did the hook up and serviced the sets,” he said.
There were two channels at the time — CHBC from the Okanagan, and a channel from Spokane. They picked up the signals with an antennae on CPR Hill, then distributed the channels to people’s homes.
Gillespie became the manager of the company in 1963, when it was sold to South Okanagan Television. In 1973, the company was sold to Shaw TV, and in 1978 Gillespie bought it from Shaw. Gillespie says they bought the first satellite dish in western Canada. The 16-foot wide behemoth allowed them to access many more channels, and grow the business.
“It was a good business because there was no competition,” he said. “Once you got someone hooked up, they kept paying. I invested as much money back into the company as I could.”
As the business grew, so did Gillespie’s involvement in the community. He was active with the Chamber and joined the Rotary Club. In 1967, he ran for council and was voted in. In 1970, he defeated Arv Lundell (the owner of the Revelstoke Review) in a tight race and became mayor.
“He didn’t have any new ideas, so I ran on a policy that it was time for a change,” said Gillespie. “I was young and energetic, but I didn’t beat him by that many votes.”
They dealt with several key issues in their day. They negotiated with BC Hydro to get Revelstoke hooked up to the province’s power grid, had the CP Rail spur line on Campbell Avenue removed, and started the industrial park.
The most controversial decision came while he was an alderman, when it came time to build a new hospital. Many people wanted it downtown, where it would be more accessible, but council chose to put it in Arrow Heights, where there was more space for expansion. Gillespie likened the debate to the current one over the shopping centre.
“We put it up there where there was room for expansion, which was a really good move,” he said.
Gillespie took a year off council after his term as mayor, but ran again for alderman and served another three years. After that, he stepped away from politics for good in order to spend more time with his family.
He continued to stay active in the community, volunteering with the fire department, and the ambulance service; and he was part of the committee that brought the 1983 BC Winter Games to town. He ran the cable business until 2004, when he sold it to YourLink.
There were other ventures over the years. In the 1970s, he was part owner of the Revelstoke Herald for five years. He also got involved in real estate, snapping up land when he could. He bought a property on Mara Lake, where he now spends most of his summers.
After selling the cable business, he bought Boccis, the grocery store on Fourth Street East where Welwinds now is. He ran that for two years before selling to an employee and retiring for good.
“I turned 81 this year and I’m still active and still healthy,” he said.