Paul Gillespie’s life has been shaped by two major careers and passions: lifeguarding and wrestling. One has offered him a lifetime of beach, sand and saltwater. The other has given him a lifetime of awards and recognition.
Adding another award to his resumé, he was selected as a member of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association class of 2023 Hall of Fame. He will be honored on July 26 in Verona.
Gillespie, 73, an Irish immigrant, grew up in Baldwin and moved to Long Beach 37 years ago. He spent 53 years looking at the sea, either from his perch on a lifeguard stand or while supervising others who save lives at the ocean. He has seen, and led the city lifeguards through, a lot over those years, the last 15 as chief.
He has continued gazing at the water but it hasn’t quite been in the same way. Last summer was his last as the city’s chief lifeguard.
He has continued his wrestling side by coaching the Wantagh High team, which he’s done for the last 12 years. He, along with his assistants he said, turned the program into what it is today.
“I have great assistants here, too,” Gillespie said. “These guys that have been with me here awhile at Wantagh, we turned the whole program around. We have won a lot of county championships and I think we’ve won three state championships.”
Gillespie got involved with wrestling while attending middle school.
“I started wrestling when I was in the seventh grade,” Gillespie recalled. “I met coaches that really gave me great guidance. I’m an immigrant, I was born in Ireland. When I came over here, I really didn’t know a heck of a lot. My mother and father, of course, were immigrants, looking for jobs and stuff like that. Luckily, I found coaches that gave me great guidance.”
After graduating from Baldwin High School in 1969, he attended Westchester State University in Pennsylvania where he became a two-time division one All-American.
Then, in 1975, he got his first job out of college. He became a phys. ed. teacher in Long Beach. He spent the next 30 years teaching at West Elementary School, the middle school and the high school. He also coached wrestling at Long Beach and Oceanside high schools before going to Wantagh.
Thinking back to when he arrived in Long Beach, he remembers that when he took over the program, it was in pretty bad shape. He said the team hadn’t won a match in about four years. What’d he say happened his first year as the high school’s coach? They won the league championship.
“We bagged it out, won the league championship, and it was history from there,” he said. “We kept bagging it out, winning and working hard, and going to events all over the place. It was quite a challenge, though, to try to bring that up to the level of the rest of the county.”
Gillespie said part of what helped him teach the young wrestlers what to do and how to do it, was his young age. He said he, and his assistant coach Reggie Jones, would actually wrestle with the kids to help them practice. He said he also made sure he offered them any guidance they needed, like his coaches did for him.
“You find some of these kids without the correct guidance at all,” Gillespie said. “By helping them, I’ve learned a lot about how the young society is growing up. Helping them out through their lives, that’s where I learned a lot how to handle kids, through trial and error.”
Gillespie has been named to several hall of fames, with this NYSPHSAA selection being the latest. In 2007, he was put into the New York State Wrestling Hall of Fame. He has also made it into a few school district’s halls of fame, including Long Beach’s Wall of Fame, and his college hall of fame at Westchester State University.
While coaching Long Beach, the team won eight dual meet championships. Through it all, he continues to praise those around him that have helped him accomplish all of his success whom he considers equally, if not more, important.
“It has been because of all the work the kids always put in,” he said. “I have had great assistants everywhere, too. The districts have also been great everywhere. And now, here in Wantagh, the parents are really fantastic and the administration is great.”