BY ANNA HERKAMP
DANVILLE — Dr. Ron Gillum, a member of the Danville High School class of 1956, fondly recalls his years growing up in Danville.
The Norman, Okla., resident has been involved with class reunions for many years, but this week, he’s honored as a philanthropist.
Although his career and travels have taken him far from his Midwestern hometown — around the country and even to Ethiopia — the stories of some of the inspiring people he knew in Danville have never faded in his mind.
One of them is about a classmate who had an uncertain future.
The boy’s circumstances — if anyone had known about them at that time — might have led some to doubt whether he’d be successful.
The young man was kicked out of his parent’s house when he was in high school. Having nowhere to go, he found a room at the YMCA. He got a job in Danville and continued to attend DHS, living at the “Y” the whole time.
His circumstances were mostly unknown to teachers and others at school.
“He didn’t say anything,” Gillum said. “Nobody understood or realized what was going on.”
After he finished high school, he went to Danville Area Community College and worked his way through Eastern Illinois University, where he earned a degree.
He moved to Texas, married and had a family. He started a temporary employment business in Houston, which grew to be a successful company.
The young man from Danville eventually became a millionaire.
“This guy worked for everything he got,” Gillum said. “I wish some of these kids here knew that you don’t have to start out with parents who can give you everything.”
The story of the now deceased classmate, whose name Gillum withholds out of respect for his family, illustrates one of the reasons Gillum has chosen to give a sizable gift — $250,000 — to the Danville Public Schools Foundation.
Many students in Danville face similar circumstances, but he wants those kids to know that they don’t have to have the best circumstances now to achieve great success in their lives.
“You can make a life for yourself,” he said. “It really does help to have parents who support you, but if you don’t, you can still succeed.”
Gillum wants the money to be used to help kids stay in school and to encourage other kids, like his classmate, to seek their own success in life.
“I’m tremendously impressed with the multiple house programs,” he said of the restructuring program.
“I think that is going to work very well.”
During a special evening ceremony Tuesday evening at DHS, the district honored Gillum with an outstanding alumnus award, but he insisted on praising some 37 people he knew when he was young.
He credits much of his success with the time he spent in Danville schools.
He likes to tell stories about his classmates — including former Danville Mayor Bob Jones and others in town who influenced him when he was young.
Among those he said taught him a lot were his employers at Jocko’s. He ran putt-putt golf courses for the family and learned lessons he says he never forgot from the experience.
Another of those he credits is Frances Watkins, an American history teacher who encouraged her most promising students to attend her alma mater, DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
There, in addition to obtaining his bachelor’s degree, he met his wife, Elizabeth.
The couple married while Gillum was in medical school. They have three children.
He graduated from the University of Illinois’ medical school in 1964, and completed his residency in anatomical and clinical pathology at the University of Illinois hospital in Chicago from 1965 to 1969.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1972 and was stationed in Ethiopia where he researched tropical infectious diseases.
He was the director of clinical chemistry laboratories at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston from 1972 to 1975.
He was the chemistry lab director and associate professor at the University of Texas medical school’s Hermann Hospital from 1975 to 1977.
From 1977 until retirement in 1999 he was at the University of Oklahoma and also worked in Oklahoma veterans’ hospitals.
Although Gillum loves visiting his hometown, he notes some changes in the area.
“I don’t like going through the downtown area and seeing buildings that are missing,” he said.
But Danville is still a town that has a future, he says.
“Danville still has excellent potential,” he said.
“A lot of people are working to try and do something good for the city.”
As they were listening to presentations at the celebration Tuesday, the Gillums remarked that the city’s progress will begin in its schools.
“Danville is alive,” Elizabeth said.
“The heart and brain are right here in the educational system.”