Husker play-by-play man Don Gill interviews Tom Osborne at Media Day.
By Randy York
Nebraska saluted one of its favorite legends Wednesday with “a Celebration and Thanksgiving to God for the Life of Donald L. Gill”, a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Jim Rose, former Husker football and baseball play-by-play man and now a major fundraiser for Nebraska Athletics, relished listening to a litany of eulogies from Gill’s contemporaries. When he left the celebration at Roper & Sons before three packed rooms – including two that carried the service through live video – Rose had a wide smile on his face.
“I loved every story because they were all true and all different,” said Rose, who considered Gill a friend, a role model and a gentleman. “Like everyone else who attended, that was a highly personal experience. Don was a classy, gentle longtime radio voice. He was what we in the radio business called a boot-strapper. He started in the small markets and wound up in Lincoln calling Husker football and basketball games for 10 years. With Don, you could always hear the smile in his rich baritone voice. He was different. He let the subjects entertain. He delivered the basics and then got out of the way, letting the sounds of the stadium and the roar of the crowd put us in the seats. In doing so, he understood this most personal medium better than most. Don was kind and approachable, lighthearted and remarkably generous, and I heard that thread through every eulogy.”
Dara Glotzbach, the oldest of Don and Donna Gill’s two daughters, was looking through her dad’s book of memories and found a quote that matched what Rose articulated so well. “It’s the old theater of the mind,” Gill once said. “You should tell the listener the direction the team is going, the direction a player is running, the wind, the temperature, if it’s a rollout right, the score, the time left. If the crowd roars you have to tell the why. One thing I do, it’s a personal thing with me, is when a touchdown is scored, I like to give the listeners a couple of seconds of uninterrupted joy … to let him or her yell out, to slap the dashboard and holler out: “Hey, Charlie! We scored!”
Big Band Music One of Gill’s Biggest Passions
Among his media colleagues, a true gentleman is Gill’s ultimate description, and virtually everyone he worked with in radio and Nebraska Educational Television acknowledge the same trait. Gill’s reputation goes well beyond calling football and basketball games. He blazed a local, regional and even national trail to bring Big Band music into a world where new listeners could discover what other generations already knew.
A parade of former colleagues stepped up to the podium and shared their chapters of the Don Gill Story. Three close personal friends – Don “Fox” Bryant, Mark Ahman and Bobby Layne – sent their condolences because health issues of their own prevented them from attending the service. Wednesday afternoon was an uplifting trip down memory lane for Donna, her two daughters, two grandchildren and the entire Gill family.
Don Bryant, Nebraska’s Sports Information Director Emeritus, and wife Pedie, wrote a letter to the Gill family. They acknowledged their longstanding friendship and countless experiences for decades that included Sunday ice cream nights after listening to outdoor band music. Fox said one of his “greatest moments” was Don saying yes to join him on the Municipal Band Board and the wonderful dinners they enjoyed together at Honey Creek and the crispy catfish on Friday evenings. Don’s death was a jolt to close friends who knew the Gills had enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations at their daughter’s home in Texas. When they returned, the Gills joined friends for breakfast on Tuesday morning, Dec. 31st. That afternoon, Gill suffered a massive stroke in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Four days later, he died in a hospital there. He was 84.
From Old to Young, a Musical Genre Comes Alive
“Don’s death brings a mix of sadness and happiness. What a shock. Our message to Don is simply this – You caught the train too soon,” wrote Bobby Layne, a Lincoln-based Big Band leader, whose orchestra performed countless live radio shows that promoted Don’s Big Band Spotlight on NET. Nancy Finken, station manager for NET, related how Gill’s smooth delivery and smart choices hooked her on Big Band music in her 20s. She read Gill’s obituary at the service.
Gill’s play-by-play broadcasts paralleled Tom Osborne’s head coaching debut in 1973, and Nebraska’s Hall-of-Fame Coach/Athletic Director Emeritus shared a quip or two with the family during Tuesday night’s visitation. The picture of Gill interviewing him on a nearby video created a smile for all. “I think we both were a little younger there,” Osborne said.
Mike Babcock, one of the eulogizers, recalled a keystone cop-like scene when Gill drove a small rental car from a Minneapolis hotel to Williams Arena for what was then a Nebraska-Minnesota non-conference basketball game. Tipoff was 8 p.m. and Babcock remembered the group getting turned around on the Washington Bridge with two other Husker play-by-play announcers in the car – KFAB’s Kent Pavelka, who’s still calling Nebraska basketball for the Huskers Sports Network, and KFOR’s Tim Moreland, who went on to become a college journalism teacher. Time was chancy, and Babcock recalled how Gill had to turn around on the bridge and ask a man if he knew the way to the game. Gill paid the driver $10 to lead three announcers and a Lincoln sportswriter to the arena. Babcock said Gill was the calmest guy in the car despite the hotel giving him inadequate directions.
Gill Sent Dozens of Questions to MrSportsKnowItAll
Fellow Lincoln sportswriter Ken Hambleton included a series of amusing quips, quotes and anecdotes in his eulogy. “Everyone was good, but Hambleton really made me laugh,” Rose said. “I could almost see Don Gill laughing himself.” Hambleton has a couple of unique connections to Gill: 1) He was the catcher when Gill threw a no-hitter in softball, and 2) He received dozens upon dozens of questions from Gill that he answered in his MrSportsKnowItAll column in Sunday’s Lincoln Journal-Star.
Steve Sorum and his family met the Gills when they moved to Alliance in the late 1960s. “Don was one-of-a-kind. I’ll always remember him as a terrific family man, a sportsman and a true gentleman,” Sorum said. “I still remember him interviewing me when I was an awkward teenage football player in Alliance. Living in Lincoln, we became friends in the 1980s and he gave me one of the most exciting assignments of my life. He asked me to fill in for his regular ‘spotter’ one season and it was a wonderfully exciting experience.”
Fred and Jane Monnich from KLIN wrote and presented a heartfelt eulogy. Lee Rockwell (who worked with Gill at KCOW in Alliance and at NET in Lincoln) said complete strangers would walk up and talk to Gill because of his statewide presence. Dick Delorm, Gill’s regular golfing buddy, had a dual performance at this memorial service. Delorm gave a eulogy and sang with the Lincoln Continentals, a group of friendly, fun-loving guys who performed a stirring rendition of The Lord’s Prayer and came back with a highly energetic version of Darkness on the Delta. Gill loved the history of the chorus and the joy and sheer passion of barbershop harmony. It always seemed to take him back to a simpler time. He was so supportive, the Continentals made him an honorary member, and his family believes Gill ranked that accolade right up there with his five Nebraska Sportscaster-of-the-Year Awards.
My Personal Favorite Gill Story Shows His Class
There are so many poignant Don Gill memories. One of my personal favorites reflects the decency he always showed when there might be a laugh at the expense of someone else. Don was just too much of gentleman to allow that. It happened on the Big Eight Skywriters Tour in a year when Don presold ads that he would read live to complement his on-campus interviews. In one live interview, Gill and a player discussed a couple of amazing plays from the previous year, so Don ended his interview with a question that was something like: “What was the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?” The player had a two-word immediate answer…a thermos. “A thermos?” Don asked. “Yeh,” the player replied. “It keeps cold things cold and hot things hot, and I’ve always wondered how does it do that?”
Instead of laughing, Gill flashed his trademark grin and ended the interview with something like “that’s a very good point and a very good question” and flawlessly segued into his live commercial. It was classic Don Gill, willing to laugh about the incongruous punch line privately but taking his share of the blame for not adding “on a football field” to his “most amazing thing” question. Knowing Skywriter interviews would be replayed on KLIN during the day, Gill called his Lincoln colleagues and asked them to remove the interview from repeats because he didn’t want it to reflect adversely on the player or the school he represented. People who heard the story second-hand would ask Gill about that interview, and he was steadfast in protecting the player and the school. He even destroyed the tape.
Imagine that. Compare and contrast that thought process to our daily avalanche of social media. A gaffe like that would have been blasted everywhere possible just for a good laugh. But not when Don Gill was calling the shots. He had too much respect for everyone to bring anyone down. I first met Don in my hometown of Alliance where he called our high school basketball games. He has been a good friend and a true role model not just for me, but for everyone in the business. We all agree: A truer gentleman you will not find.
Donna Gill, Daughter Dara Get Special Serenade
We end this tribute to a Nebraska Broadcasting Association Hall-of-Famer with a moving acknowledgment that Moonlight Serenade was Don Gill’s personal favorite. All of his Big Band Spotlight listeners instantly recognize it as “my dad’s theme song,” daughter Dara said. As the appropriate last person to eulogize a gentleman who was an even better dad, Dara believes he might have chosen Moonlight Serenade as his signature song because of the words as much as the melody:
I stand at your gate – And the song that I sing is of moonlight
I stand and wait for the touch of your hand in the June night
The roses are singing a Moonlight Serenade
“To dad, Moonlight Serenade epitomizes the Big Band sound,” Dara said, pointing out how that same song played another role in her family’s lives on January 3rd, the day of Don’s death.
Don Gill proudly called Donna and their daughters Dara and Diane “My Three Girls” and he must have received some return favors when he left one life for another.
“In the hospital room, we had the music constantly playing, just like dad would have at our house,” Dara said. “If he was home, the music was on.”
On the Friday morning of her dad’s death, “Mom and I decided we needed to turn up the volume, so the nurses allowed us to shut the door. We had the Pandora Internet radio blasting Big Band music!” she said with a certain emphasis and a definitive joy.
Pandora Opens Again for Youngest Daughter Di
“Throughout the morning, we would stand on either side of him – praying, singing, crying, laughing,” Dara said.”Finally, as dad was taking one of his last breaths, Moonlight Serenade started playing! We looked at each other and rejoiced in a life well-lived!
“My sister’s flight from Florida was delayed due to storms on the East Coast and she wasn’t able to get to the room in time,” Dara pointed out. “However, we put the phone up to dad’s ear so he could hear her say, ‘I love you.’”
“Di” arrived at the hospital within five minutes of Don Gill’s passing and while she was sharing her bedside goodbyes to her father, guess what song cycled through with perfectly timed speed from Pandora’s satellite feed way up high?
“Any radio listener knows that songs rarely cycle that often,” Dara said. “All three of us looked at dad and said: ‘Okay, we got the message! We love you, too.’”
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Voices from Husker Nation
Don Gill was the moderator of our Wilson High School’s 50th Reunion in Long Beach, California. Even in high school, I remember Don as very friendly, clean-cut, and a gentleman. On a trip to North Dakota where I was born, we veered way south and met with Don and Donna for lunch just off the Interstate in 2004. Doesn’t seem possible it was that long ago. Donna brought me a jar of her super delicious choke-cherry jam. Don and I corresponded through e-mail. He was always so proud of his family and spoke of them as if I had met them and knew them personally. I listened to his radio program on Friday nights at six o’clock, Pacific Time. I will miss him as will many of his high school friends who still kept in touch all through the years. His was a true Wonderful Life and who could ask for anything more? Carole White Thurston-Breithaupt, La Quinta, California
I’m sure my memory and remembrances of Don Gill are universal to almost everyone who ever knew him or heard him. He was 84 and just a wonderfully well-rounded gentleman whose diverse interests allowed him to chair an evening “Big Band” show. He had a knack for providing history and humor at the same time and just listening to him kept listeners like me entertained. Any time you tuned in to one of Don’s hosted programs, you could visualize his cheerful, contagious smile by the sound and the inflections of his enthusiastic voice, the twinkle in his eye and the joy he felt for you being his friend. Dick Heinke, Bennet, Nebraska
Thank you for your good work and your thoughtful tribute to a true gentleman. Frank Gaines, Lincoln, Nebraska