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Holladay Journal

Joanne McGillis discusses her passion, the McGillis School

Nov 25, 2019 09:45AM ● By Sona Schmidt-Harris

Richard and Joanne McGillis purchased the old Douglas School on 1300 East, which later became the home of the McGillis School. (Sona Schmidt-Harris/City Journals)

By Sona Schmidt-Harris | [email protected]

Joanne McGillis is earnest and organized. This is one first impression of her. The other is the unusual color of her eyes — somewhere between amber, yellow, gold and brown.

A longtime resident of both Cottonwood Heights and Holladay, McGillis has been a presence in the social and philanthropic scene for years.  

The crown jewel of her philanthropic endeavors is the founding of the Joanne S. and Richard L. McGillis School (Richard “Dick” McGillis is her late husband and co-founder of the school).

She said, “It looks like something out of the United Nations because it's the diversity that I love so much. The school is secular, but it's based on Jewish ethics. So, we have such things as just learning for learning’s sake, respect, charity, repairing the earth, thoughtfulness, and kindness and all the good things that are really universal values.”

“We also stress freedom of intellect, and to explore and to be the best at what you can be whatever that may be. If you're a plumber, be the best plumber you can be.” 

She is particularly proud of the art and drama programs.  

The McGillis School incorporated on April 12, 2002 and opened its doors on September 2, 2003.

Joanne McGillis said, “I have always based my love for this school on Michael Masser’s song. ‘I believe that children are the future; teach them well and let them lead the way.’” (Photographer Unknown/Rancho Mirage, California. Photograph previously appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune)

 Richard and Joanne McGillis purchased the old Douglas School on 1300 East, which later became the home of the McGillis School. 

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone more enthusiastic about the structure of a school than McGillis. “Our good friend Gary Eckman, who was a contractor to refurbish the place, brought it up to seismic code. That's not easy to do right. We unearthed beautiful hardwood floors that had been sealed over and all kinds of beautiful marble that had been painted, and he just brought it back to restore it to its original glory.”

When it came time to expand, McGillis said, “They sent to Europe for the brick because they wanted to make the building look like it hadn't been added onto. They replicated even the façade and the moldings so the building looks like it was originally intended to be one building.”

Additionally, it is environmentally friendly. The gold-LEED-certified building is flooded with light from solar panels (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).  

McGillis was driven to open a school. “I'm an ardent admirer of education. I think it's the path to a lifetime. It opens so many doors. It's so important just for the sociability of meeting other people and learning to get along with other people. And you know, if you are lucky enough to have one teacher impact you during your lifetime, that's a blessing. It really is. I was so lucky. I was sent to Roland Hall when it was a very small girls’ school up on B Street. I was just born with curiosity. I love to learn.”

McGillis later earned a scholarship to Mills College outside Oakland, California.

“I have always based my love for this school (the McGillis School) on Michael Masser’s song. ‘I believe that children are the future; teach them well and let them lead the way.’ That's it.” 

This is made more potent by the fact that McGillis met Masser in California. “‘I believe that children are the future.’ It's true. It’s kind of my mantra,” she said.

If you’re interested in learning more about the McGillis School, visit their website: mcgillisschool.org

Funding is available, and as McGillis said, “Well, I would say our growth and our waiting list speaks for itself.”