AURORA — Tom Gillach "had a heart of gold and a mind like a child." He's "gone but he'll always be with us." And he was "a family man, a man of deep faith and integrity." Accolades aplenty for the teacher, coach, community organizer and ardent supporter of all things Aurora and the Range since Gillach died September 19 "with family by his side and prayer in his heart."
What follows are comments as written by friends and associates:
Bobby Jo Mineheine
Tom was an amazing man. I was blessed to know him personally because he married my aunt Laurie McCauley. Through his relationship with her, he taught me how to be honorable, gentle, loyal, patient, giving, strong, and to love with your whole heart. Tom was a family man. A man of deep faith and integrity. You knew where you stood with him because he was honest and led by example. He always had time for everyone and had a way of making a person feel special. He was passionate about kids, education, his community, the Iron Range, and the list goes on. Another of his successes was the Celebrate Aurora committee, in which he was an active member.
Tom was one of the founders of the "Yellow Can Trailer," which is an aluminum can recycling operation. He went to the aluminum can drop area in Aurora by the recycling receptacles nearly daily to load the trailer. To date, the fund has given over $100,000 to area organizations. Tom always believed that his endeavors would be successful. He, on at least one occasion, put his house up for collateral to attain the funds needed to make his plan happen.
His philosophy was that helping, volunteering, and giving should be paramount in everyone’s life. Tom wanted to instill the significance of becoming an active member in the community. He said, “Start them young!” Tom worked tirelessly volunteering throughout his life. He was able to share his passion and enthusiasm in a way that made you want to assist him. Some of his successes included the Aurora Centennial, Northern Lights Music Festival, and the East Range All Class Reunion.
His latest mission was the Mesabi East Foundation endowment. It was his dream that the foundation would grow to be a sustainable perpetual organization. Tom spent his life in education, and he knew the importance of education. He wanted to make an everlasting impact in his community and the place that started it all. Tom said there is no better feeling than service and helping people. I am honored that I was able to call him my uncle and my mentor. Tom was cherished by all who knew him; he will be missed dearly.
Tom was the head of the great Aurora Centennial Committee in 2003. I was invited to play a piano recital as part of the festivities, and I was shocked — pleasantly — at the wonderful turnout and proposed that I bring a summer music camp to Aurora. Although I came home frequently to visit my family, I wasn’t part of the local social and political structure. Tom opened every door: The superintendent at Mesabi East, Gene Paulsen, who welcomed us with open arms. The Chisholm superintendent Jim Varichak—as NLMF became a professional organization and we expanded to the West Range. And, he introduced us to that lover of Italian opera, Sen. David Tomassoni.
Tom knew every political, civic and athletic person on the Range, and when we needed help — and arts organizations always need help — he made the introductions. It was the oddest couple: The retired coach, and the pianist, working together to make a high quality summer music and opera festival.
At my house in Aurora I could stand in my living room and watch Tom in his little green car, zipping up Central Avenue to one of the local restaurants to pitch someone on a project. Then, watch him zip back home; and back down town…all day long.
He had irons in every fire, and was an indispensable part of most civic organizations. Northern Lights would never have happened without him. Energy in life isn’t really physical, it is emotional and intellectual. If you want to get something done, your mind pushes you on…and nobody pushed as hard as Tom Gillach, for all the good things that make a town work. I’ll always be indebted to him and we all feel this loss heavily. That line about “no one is irreplaceable” is not true. There are irreplaceable people, and Tom was one.
I met Tom Gillach 18 years ago when we started going to the first season of Northern Lights Music Festival concerts. He was the top volunteer and then president of the NLMF Board for many years. It was my honor to try to fill his big shoes when he decided to step down as president. He continued his unwavering support right through our 2021 season and we are all truly grateful.
I met Tom in 1960 in Minneapolis, approximately 40 years later when I moved to the Iron Range we found we both had matching energy and lived an active and fun life for over 20 years. He lived life to the fullest…we loved to dance and our families were very important to us. In many ways he was larger than life itself.
I have known St. Thomas for 50 years. He is non pareil. He is a unique person. He is the kindest, generous, patient, understanding person that I have ever known. I have never heard him ever demean or criticize anyone ever. If that type of conversation ensued, he would shut it down right now. At least once a year he and I would play golf at Ely Golf Course after which lunch at one of the Ely restaurants. It was idyllic for me just being with him. On a number of occasions we invited someone. Invariably that person would say to me, “He is the nicest guy." My response was always, “You are in the presence of a saint."
The Hodnik and Gillach extended families lived downtown and shared family and community connections for generations…we shared an Aurora bond.
Entering junior high full of nerves and wondering about our futures, it was so reassuring to hear Tom’s booming “voice of God” commands rousing us from the bowels of the Memorial Gymnasium dressing rooms and up onto the practice fields for gym class. Yes, sir -- drill sergeant!
Tom’s engagement with and passion for athletics, community, culture and church are legendary. Whether promoting a music festival, establishing a scholarship foundation or sorting aluminum cans after a snowstorm to pay for Aurora 4th fireworks, Tom’s vision, energy and fingerprints were everywhere. Most importantly, he focused each of us on a larger life meaning and our individual responsibilities in society while imparting his values and wisdom. How blessed were we to have had Tom in our lives.”
My wife Sue and I met Tom and Laurie at Nick's Bar in Gilbert through Pepper Lysaker. Tom and I had an instant connection with our love of collegiate sports and opposing political views… always spirited but never personal.
He lost and I won almost every bet we made. But the most memorable bet was Saturday, September 18, 2021. Gophers were huge favorites… I gave Tommy his choice, no Vegas points allowed. He took Colorado, me being a Badger fan swallowed hard and took the Gophers.
The good Lord was looking out for Tommy that day and brought him home before he had to pay one more bet to his nemesis Badger fan. I will always remember the last bet Tommy took to his grave… I never collected that bet but the memories shared and laughs enjoyed will forever be engrained in my soul.
Another attribute Tom and I shared was our faith, optimism and love of the Iron Range. Tommy was from here, Sue and I were (are) Packsackers. Tommy Gillach or Tommy Rukavina or Nick Vukelich taught me so much about giving back and appreciation for what the Range has meant to so many over many decades. We have lost another icon and it’s up to us to carry this legacy forward.
I first met Tom Gillach through Pepper Lysaker and my friend from Buhl David "Tucker" Galovich (current Crosby-Ironton Boy's Basketball Coach) listening to Johnny Snidarich and the Bohunks at Nick's Bar in Gilbert. It was the start of a great friendship as my cronies and I would attend Mesabi Range football games and he would occasionally attend sporting events at schools I was Superintendent at, but only when we had good teams. He ended up attending quite a few games as Nashwauk-Keewatin had good football, basketball, and baseball and Mountain Iron-Buhl was strong in football and girls basketball, including many state tournament appearances by both schools. A very memorable moment was when several of us "Buhl" boys attended the Mesabi-Hibbing Community College football game. It was unique in that most of us previously played for the Hibbing Community College team. Pepper, during the course of the game, walked over to the sideline for a quick chat. In the meantime Assistant Coach Gillach called for an on-side kick. Mesabi didn't recover and I believe that was the last time Coach Gillach was left alone to call plays.
Tom Gillach was a mentor and friend of mine my entire life. He was an ambitious, considerate, warm, dynamic, and enthusiastic man. Tom assisted my father at Mesabi for many years and was a part of my family and friends lives forever. Tom was everywhere! The Golf course, ski hill, sporting events, dancing, weddings, restaurants, all while demonstrating his positive, energetic vibe.
After all Tom gave me I decided to give back to Tom. I gathered the Eveleth Clown Band to attend the centennial parade in Aurora. We came marching down the street in true clown form (Tom didn’t know we were attending) and there was Tom singing, dancing and tears coming down his face because he was so proud of us for taking time for his town's celebration.
Tom loved to ski. I would see him at Giants Ridge often (after early mass). He would ski part of the day then off to somewhere to watch a game or dance. A few times we took the high school “Ski Club” to California and Colorado. Tom would get up early, attend Mass, then was ready to go skiing all day while smiling and showing others how skiing is a lifelong sport and how beautiful the outdoors is.
Tom gave me and others opportunities for life experiences. He was a mentor to innumerable people through his dedication of serving his family, education, church, organizations, and charities. He had so much contagious energy that many will miss. Tom would not want us to cry, he would want us to be smiling, singing, and dancing because of what we all did together.
I met Tom when I was a little kid, but lost track of him until I was playing baseball at Hamline University and he was coaching at a high school in St. Paul. Little did I think I would end up teaching and coaching at Aurora-Hoyt Lakes High School and he would, as the athletic director, be my boss. Two fun golf stories about Tom: The sound a putter makes when it hits about halfway up the Virginia water tower just off the 18th green is awesome. Quasimodo would have been proud. Also, when golfing with Tom I always had extra tees which I knew he would borrow during the course of the day.
Most mornings a group of us met at Megan's restaurant for morning coffee. Each day there was sports talk, news of the towns on the Range, how our Twins, Gophers, and Vikings were faring, and of course the quarter coin flip between Tom and Jim Lakso (both the best, friendly liars you could ever see.)
Tom never would say "no" whenever he was asked to volunteer his time and talents for his beloved hometown Aurora. Filling his shoes is going to be a giant task. I am going to miss Tommy with all of his zest for life.
He bled Aurora and the Range. He remembered wooden sidewalks in the town. Tommy came riding in the centennial parade. He says, "Reagan, Mismash, Mikulich, sell these books!" (Book about Aurora's first 100 years) The town meant so much to him. He lived life to the fullest.
Tom was one of those rare guys you could call about any subject and he would have an answer or he would find the answer for you. He took on every task with vigor, vitality and a winning attitude. Sports were his outward appearance, however friendship to all and love and dedication to Laurie and his family were his inner affection and dedication.
I learned all the words to "God Bless America" from Tom. Although not the best singer, he could get a crowd singing with little effort. I also learned many do’s and not to do’s on picking the correct team to win.
My favorite and repetitive story of Tom was when Nick’s had polka, he would sit by me during a break and say, “You have to start dancing more with all these ladies. I am getting winded.”
I remember when the Barich Brothers were playing at Nick's. Tommy came in with a real Christmas tree, and Nick went ballistic! (He didn't want the needles on the floor.)
Tommy was there for the Kentucky Derby, he was there for the Super Bowl, he led the National Anthem. Our last encounter was listening to the Tamburitzans at the Serbian church hall in Hibbing.
The thing I'll remember most — he was a good soul, a young soul. What a treat he was for the community! He was game for anything and everything. He had a heart of gold and a mind like a child.
Tommy Gillach, I remember him in the late '40s. He and his brother playing for Aurora, the underdogs.
Around 2000 I moved back to Eveleth and got to know Tom again. Great guy, enthusiastic about most everything.
We'd go blueberry picking — he knew somebody from Ely (who knew where to find good picking)... Tommy's gone, but he'll always be with us.
I first met Tom in 1972 when he was coaching football at Mesabi State, and I was coaching at U of M Crookston. Tom, Pepper, Monk and Gorgo — what a crew!
Tom’s enthusiasm and dedication to young people was endless, and his positive attitude toward teaching and coaching was a trademark of his success.
I will always remember Tom’s excitement about life. Whatever the topic of conversation may have been, Tom was excited about it.
Tom Gillach was a coach, friend, mentor, father-figure to many former Mesabi Range College student-athletes. He was a true ambassador for the school and continued to support MRC long after his 20 plus years as an assistant football coach to Pepper Lysaker had come to a close. Mr. Gillach was always willing to support any Norse initiatives and help where needed.
Mr. Gillach cared about his MRC student-athletes long after they had finished their time at Mesabi Range College. He was always more than willing to write a letter of recommendation, place a supportive phone call or even meet with a potential employer in-person if it meant helping that former player gain employment.
Mr. Gillach’s love of Mesabi Range College was a microcosm of who he was. He loved his family above all. He loved his church. He loved his community of Aurora and he loved Mesabi East High School. Mr. Gillach was passionate about everything he was involved with. His wit, dry sense of humor, smile and recognizable laugh will be missed but never forgotten.