Former CDT reporter Dennis Gildea remembered for his creativity, passion for journalism
BY R. THOMAS BERNER FOR THE CDT
MAY 09, 2020
Sportswriter Dennis Gildea showed up for work at the Pennsylvania Mirror one day and was told by his editor that he needed something to help share the burden of filling six pages. “I only write when I have something to say,” Terry Nau recalls Gildea’s response. Gildea had nothing to say but he did want to help so he secluded himself in an empty office near the sports department and created his alter ego, T. Wes Brillik.
Brillik claimed to live on top of Mount Nittany with his girlfriend Mimsy, a topless dancer, no doubt a subtle nod to the My-O-My in State College, which used to have topless dancers. He was irreverent and idiosyncratic. He made fun of the people in power and almost always picked the Penn State football team to lose. He snubbed Pennsylvania beers for Utica Club, then a cheap beer from upstate New York. Cheap was the point.
In Brillik’s world, this newspaper was the Seedy Tea. The paper he worked at was the Mirrow. Penn State was Nittany U. Brillik never met a word he didn’t spell phonetically instead of correctly. English teachers covered their students’ eyes at the sight of Brillik’s column.
When the Mirror folded on Dec 31, 1977, Thaddeus Westmoreland Brillik reverted to Dennis Gildea, who joined the staff of the Centre Daily Times (which Brillik derided as the “rival sheet”) and eventually earned a Ph.D. in communications from Penn State. He spent his final 25 years teaching journalism at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He lived in nearby Amherst, where he died May 3 from brain cancer.
Dennis Patrick Gildea, fittingly, was born on Saint Patrick’s Day 1943 in Coaldale, Schuylkill County, to Vincent R. Gildea and Mary Rusinko Gildea. His family published the weekly Coaldale Observer. He graduated from Marian High School 1961 and, after a gap year, Villanova University. He eventually found his way to Centre County where he met his wife, the former Constance Wicklund, whom he nicknamed “C.W.” (Everybody had a nickname.) She survives him as does their son, Timothy, and his wife, “the lovely Jude,” of Sandy, Utah; a sister, Mary Mack and her husband, Willie, of Coaldale, and nieces and nephews.
In high school, Gildea played football and baseball, but as an adult his interests shifted to running, mountain biking and cross-country skiing. Contact sports were better observed.
Although he had discontinued Brillik, Gildea did not stop writing about sports. While a graduate student at Penn State, he received the Roberta Park Graduate Student Essay Award (1992) from the North American Society for Sport History for the essay “Counterpunch: The Morrison-Heenan Fight of 1858 and Frank Queen’s Attack on the ‘Responsible Press.’”
As a faculty member at Springfield, he wrote “Hoop Crazy: The Lives of Clair Bee and Chip Hilton,” which was published by the University of Arkansas Press. One of his last articles was “The Rise and Fall of the National Sports Daily,” a chapter in “Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles: The Most Iconic Moments in American Sports,” a collection of essays published by the University of Illinois Press in 2017. Sport historian Ron Smith called it “a beautifully written article.”
Student comments on ratemyprofessors.com are also laudatory. One student said he was the “funniest, down-to-earth guy in the school.” Another called him the “best writing teacher you’ll ever have.”
He was also a good role model for the writerly wannabes. He had a sharp eye for detail and could summarize a person in one paragraph. In 2007 he wrote an article for Sports Pride Journal about a losing season when he was a young boy in the Coaldale VFW baseball program. He and a friend had to endure the taunts of an adult male named Punk McHugh. Gildea remembered him this way:
“Here come the veterans,” he’d bellow, pulling himself from the cushioned hollows of the front-porch swing.
What he’d do, once up, was wink at his sister, Lizzie Horrigan, slouch over to the railing, do a palms-planted, belly-anchored lean into the awning’s shade, and send a curl of chewing tobacco onto the sidewalk in front of us like it was his calling card, something he had to do to let us know he was there. As if we could possibly avoid him.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Pioneer Valley Hospice and Palliative Care, 329 Conway St., Greenfield, Mass. 01301
Gildea’s ashes will be scattered at a favorite cross-country ski trail in the mountains near Salt Lake City, Utah. Memorial gatherings will be announced when allowed both in Massachusetts and State College.