Joe Gillespie, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Manor College, spoke with MONTCO Today about his wonderful memories of growing up in Overbrook, taking public transportation to get to high school, the first thing he bought himself when he started working, and how he transformed his approach to education once he enrolled in college.
Gillespie also discussed the importance of his Catholic faith, the people who saw potential in him, his responsibilities at Manor College, what opportunities lie ahead for the institution, and how he likes to spend his spare time.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up the second of four children in the Overbrook section in West Philadelphia. My grandfather bought my parents a big home with three floors, five bedrooms, and three bathrooms when they got married. He said they would grow into it with a family, and we did.
What did your parents do?
My dad was a detective in the Juvenile Aid Division of the Philadelphia Police Department. My mom was a stay-at-home mom until my youngest brother went to first grade when she went to work for Western Savings Fund Society which became Citizen’s Bank years later. She worked there until she retired.
What memories do you have growing up in Overbrook?
It was a wonderful place to grow up. It was a really different time back then. We went outside and played all day. Nothing organized; we just played. We jumped roofs, made our own skateboards, and played with our neighbors. It was a very diverse neighborhood, and that was the norm for us. We had great respect for our elders. Ou
r parish school, Our Lady of Lourdes, and the connected church were the center of so much of our lives.
People in the neighborhood had such a great deal of respect for my dad because he was a police officer. When anyone reached out to us, my father would help them. If anyone did anything wrong in school, the principal would call my dad to talk to the student.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my dad retired from the police force and we moved to Upper Darby. I walked a few miles to the 69th Street Terminal to get the el and subway to St. Joe’s Prep in Philadelphia every day. My dad went to St. Joe’s, so it was always assumed I would go there too!
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
I listen to all kinds of music except for country music! From my younger years, I listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all of the bands influencing music at that time.One of my memories growing up is my dad working the Beatles Concert at the Civic Center. As a family, we all went to the Monkeys concert at the old Convention Center in West Philadelphia because my Dad was working that concert too. In high school and college, I enjoyed music of all genres, but still never warmed up to country music.
Did you have any jobs growing up?
My first job was in a pharmacy around the corner from where we lived. I did all sorts of things: cleaning, stocking the shelves, and doing the weekly cigarette inventory, which I hated. I liked to make deliveries because I would go and visit customers in their home. They often wanted to tip me, which I was instructed not to take, and never did.
When we moved to Upper Darby, I worked as a busboy at Frank Pica’s Restaurant on West Chester Pike. I did that until I started college.
What lessons did you take from those jobs?
I learned a lot of important things in my jobs: being responsible, being on time, and earning my own money. I liked having my own money and kept track of it, making sure to use it on things I needed to buy. I learned to follow directions and not make mistakes. I remember dropping something once in the pharmacy and breaking it. I was afraid to tell the pharmacist. Eventually, I told him what had happened. He was happy that I fessed up and respected me for coming forward. That taught me a big lesson about being responsible for my actions.
What kinds of things would you buy for yourself with your money?
The first thing I bought for myself was a pair of high, white Chuck Taylor’s canvas sneakers. They were $10. All my friends had them, and I knew I wanted to buy them myself.
Did you play sports in high school?
Unfortunately, no. I always wanted to play sports, but I didn’t have a growth spurt until my junior year of high school. I was 5 foot or so until I was 16, and then I grew 10 inches. I was always a big sports fan and attended all the high school football and basketball games. I did play a lot of intramural sports.
I worked with student-athletes at La Salle University and coached CYO basketball for several years. I always thought I didn’t have what it took to play, either the size or the stamina. But I always saw how important sports were, and that’s why I loved coaching. You can develop strong relationships through coaching; it’s even how I met my wife!
Were you a good student?
No, I was one of the worst! I wanted to be a good student, but at The Prep, everyone was a good student. They were assertive and asked questions. I was intimidated, did not like to ask questions or ask for help, so I didn’t perform well academically.
When did you come out of that timidness?
I remember exactly. I was at Mount St. Mary’s University on my first day in August of 1972, and I remember sitting at my desk thinking that no one knows me here, and I could be whoever I wanted to be successful. After I made that commitment to myself, I began to study hard and engage with professors and advisors. I began to feel successful and ended up graduating near the top of my class. I had to work hard and study hard, but I realized how that epiphany paid off and would lead me to what I wanted to do.
Why Mount St. Mary’s?
I was not confident about college. I knew I was going and knew I wanted to be a high school English teacher, but I didn’t feel optimistic about my SAT scores or overall academic performance. I went to a college fair at Monsignor Bonner High School, and I remember waiting to approach the different colleges until no one else was in the room and could hear my conversations.
Larry Reardon, the Director of Admissions at Mount St. Mary’s, welcomed me to his table and started asking me questions. He told me I would do well at their school, despite what I thought were my low SAT scores, because of my education at St. Joe’s. His encouragement and confidence resonated with me.
Three weeks later, I was coming home from school and saw the big acceptance envelope from Mount St. Mary in the mail. I was elated!
Looking back, was Mount St. Mary’s a good choice for you?
Yes, I would go back in a second and do it again! Mount St. Mary’s was affirming. The smallness, the Catholicity, the encouragement, the advising, the friends I met, and the support I received. It was just a family.
Catholicity is not a word I hear often. Your faith means a lot to you?
Without faith, I don’t know where I would be. My wife, Tricia, and I often say that. Our faith is so important to us as is our hope in something better after this life. If that’s not there, what’s all this about? We’ve raised our twelve children that way and try to instill that in our grandchildren as well. My Catholic faith is a big part of why I’m at Manor College today.
Our obligation as Christians is to create hope for others. We have so much love for our children and our twenty-nine grandchildren. They bring hope to the world. My wife lives out her faith each and every day in a very natural way, and it is inspiring. She is truly a sacramental person – – she invites and includes, nourishes, affirms, forgives, heals, and unites. Tricia really is an inspiration to many!
Who were the people in your life who saw potential in you?
My parents definitely did. My father really pushed me to be a good student, much more than my siblings. I don’t know if it’s because he wanted me to do well at The Prep because he went there and saw it as a reflection on him. Maybe he saw the importance of taking your place in society as a male in those days and making a difference.
The greater influence though was my mother. She, in her very quiet and humble way, never missed a day of work, was never late for work, and always made the family the center of her life. She really worked to make sure we had everything we needed.
I remember near the end of 8th grade, my mother said she was going to ask my dad if we could go and buy a new suit for my graduation. Somehow, she knew the other kids in my class were all getting new suits. She was so excited to take me shopping for that suit. She knew she was making me happy. I learned later how much doing that meant to her and how important it is to give your kids that confidence and happiness.
Beyond your parents, who else opened doors for you?
I had already decided freshman year that I was going to be an English teacher because of Eddie Burke. Eddie lived across the street from me, played basketball at The Prep and then at LaSalle College, and he was my idol. My parents were close to his parents, and he had a great relationship with my dad. When I went into The Prep, he was my freshman year English teacher and my homeroom teacher. I saw how much the men at the Prep loved their jobs, and I knew I wanted to be a teacher, just like them.
Another person who impacted me was a Jesuit priest in high school named Fr. Robert Hamm, S.J.. Father Hamm was my senior year English teacher and the best teacher I had in high school. I told him, “I hope I am as good of an English teacher as you are.” He replied, “I hope you’re better.” His confidence in me was inspiring. He wrote me an encouraging note right before I started my college years, a note that I still have today.
I had a professor at Mount St. Mary’s, Dr. Midge Ritter, who really mentored me and brought me out of my shell. She taught me that my ideas were worth sharing.
In my professional life, there have been a lot of influences but one of the most profound recently has been Dr. Jonathan Peri, President of Manor College. We worked at Neumann University together. I was the Dean of the School of Education and Human Services, and he was the University’s legal counsel and Vice President. While we did not work together a lot, we knew and respected one another.
When Jonathan went to Manor College, I reached out to congratulate him and he invited me over to talk. We had a great conversation about our visions for higher education, and he invited me to join the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees at Manor College. Through this, I came to know Manor College and its mission and vision well. In December 2020, Dr. Peri invited me to join the College as interim Vice President for Enrollment Management. He took a leap of faith that it would be good for me and good for Manor. I wanted to prove him right and serve Manor well in accepting. I have since interviewed for the position and was appointed full time in February 2021.
Looking forward, what do you see as Manor College’s opportunities moving forward?
My responsibility as Vice President for Enrollment Management is to ensure that we have developed a strategic enrollment management plan and that the entire college is involved in the development and implementation of that plan, as well as the evaluation of that plan.
I also work with our admissions team to establish enrollment goals and to develop plans together to reach these goals. They are a talented, hard-working, motivated team, fully committed to Manor College and our mission and a pleasure to lead.
The best thing about Manor College is that we offer a wonderful education with value-added. Our students belong to a small campus where they can be big thinkers and excel. They have a place to feel safe physically, academically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. We encourage them to leave even better than they came in but to remain true to themselves. That is what I think is unique and special to Manor.
Some of the challenges we face are the fact that we used to be a junior college. It became Manor College under Dr. Peri. We now offer many associates and bachelor’s degrees. That’s not as widely known as we need it to be. We need to spread the word that this beautiful campus nestled into Jenkintown, has passionate professors who can engage students in learning that they may not get everywhere else. They can go on to further study or into a career. They are well prepared for both.
At a time when higher education is struggling with high costs, it’s important to note that Manor is incredibly affordable as well. We are the most affordable private residential college in Pennsylvania, and we have financial aid and scholarships. We know that education is the most powerful tool you can give one to succeed and we work to make the investment a student and family is making in education an affordable one.
How does an administrator increase students’ pride in their degree?
We work to show students that all they experience at Manor will lead them to a place they dreamed of but perhaps never thought they could achieve. We work to instill confidence and a mindset of success.
We want students to know that what they learn in the classroom and out of the classroom, through experiences such as internships or externships, or through a connection with professors or fellow students, they can achieve more than they may have believed they could.
What other opportunities do you have ahead of you coming out of the pandemic?
Our priorities are to work with the students who have applied to Manor to get them ready to be accepted, and for those accepted, to get them ready to deliver their deposits and matriculate to Manor. We just started to discuss that we do not want to just see students enrolled here; we want the process of applying and enrolling in college to be meaningful and memorable. We want to let them know why we want them here. We want them to know we live out our brand promise which states, “You Belong Here.” We want them to tell their story to us so that we can respond with how we can assist them to meet their goals.
What do you do in your spare time, Joe?
I love to do things with my family including taking walks with our dog and our 10-year-old daughter and three-year-old grandson. Sometimes these become bike and scooter rides! We visit family a lot both locally as well as our children and grandchildren in Florida. I still love to watch sports, especially basketball and football. I read a lot and listen to a lot of books and podcasts on tape.
Do you have a favorite book?
My favorite book of all time is Native Son by Richard Wright. I read it for a course in college and was so captivated I finished it in one sitting, staying up all night to read it. I just finished two books, one called, “The Greatest You ” by former NFL player Trent Shelton and “The Inspirational Leader: Inspiring Your Team to Believe in the Impossible” by Gifford Thomas.
I am currently working through Young’s 7 Ways To Lead: Evolve Professionally and Personally and Berquist and Pawlak’s Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy.
I like books that talk about leadership, influence, and inspiration. Wanda Wallace is another author and podcaster I like. Her book You Can’t Know it All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise convinced me I could step into this role and be successful.
Finally, Joe, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
When I was a junior at Mount St. Mary’s, I had a lot of work to do, which I was usually good at managing. Because I was an English major, I had a lot of papers to write. Back in those days, you had to type them all and white out your mistakes.
I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I called home on a Saturday night, and I told my mom what I was experiencing. She said, “just take your time. Wake up a little earlier, go to bed a little later, take your time, and you’ll see it will all get done.”
I realized that’s the way she did everything. She woke up early every morning, had everything prepared for the day, and was home to cook, clean, and take care of us. I took it for granted and never realized how much she had to do. I realized that time management is so critical to success.
What she taught me there was to take your time and plan your day. I remember how profound it was because it’s affected me every day since she told me that.