The Original "G"

When you picture a Young Life leader, what image comes to mind? Young? Energetic? A college student, maybe? In the South, you can often measure a leader by the extent of their Chaco sandals tan or how fast they set up their Eno hammock. What you probably don’t picture is an 80-year-old pediatrician.

This fall, Cleveland County Young Life in Shelby, North Carolina, will be celebrating its 70th anniversary, and Dr. Cecil “Lee” Gilliatt volunteered for more than 50 of those years. Counting college, medical school and residency, Gilliatt has been a leader since 1955.

“In the fall of 1951, Billy Graham came to Shelby, and I became a Christian. The next day, a guy named Mal [McSwain] met me in the hall at school and told me I needed to come to Young Life. I did. And never stopped,” said Gilliatt. “I guess I’ve stayed with the ministry somewhat since then.”

After 62 years, he’s decided it’s about time to retire.

An Ivy League Education ... in Leading

Gilliatt began working with teenagers while an undergrad at Dartmouth and became more involved while studying medicine at Harvard. During residency, he and Helen worked alongside Young Life legends Dan Komarnicki and Skeeter Powell to start Young Life in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

“The real, formal leadership began when I moved back [to Shelby] in 1967. Ronnie Austell was a pharmacist and led Young Life for 20 years. Helen and I started Friday morning Campaigners, which is still going,” said Gilliatt. “Twenty or 30 kids would show up at our house. One year we had 80. We just kept finding stuff to eat.”

When Sid Bradsher was area director, they were having difficulty finding spots at Windy Gap, the local Young Life camp. “We brainstormed and prayed about what to do with the kids. Sid said, ‘Let’s have Windy Gap here.’

“‘What should we call it?’ I asked.

“‘Gilliatt Gap,’ he said. Don’t ask me how long we did it because I don’t know.”

The Doctor Will See You Now

“When I think about Doc and the legacy he is leaving,” said current Cleveland County Area Director Chad Sakada, “it is humongous. He has seen so many kids meet Jesus, so many families transformed.”

Sakada continued, “But it’s also the way he goes to the school almost every day. When Doc walks into the lunchroom, he greets every kid. He coaches cross-country and track and still runs with them.”

“Going to the high school is my refuge,” said Gilliatt. “It wasn’t easy being a pediatrician and a Young Life leader, but if I had a bad morning at work, the closer I got to the school, the lighter I felt. Being with my high school friends is its own type of affirmation.”

Many of those friends, young and old, surprised Gilliatt for his 80th birthday on May 13 in the only place appropriate: Shelby High School. Former staff and leaders performed, “If Doc were not in Young Life.” John Austin presented Gilliatt with a book of letters. Sakada announced the creation of a campership legacy fund called, “Standing in the Gilliatt Gap.”

A week later, Gilliatt spoke at “Senior Night,” the last club of the year. “It went well. I mentioned the fact that I was a senior as well then talked about Jesus and Peter’s first fishing trip and second chances.”

When asked what he’ll miss most, Gilliatt said, “The things I love I’ll keep doing. I’ll go to the high school. I’ll coach, and I’ll still do my discipleship group.”

Sounds like after retiring from Young Life, he’ll be doing ... Young Life.

Dr. G. is one of thousands of alumni still intimately involved with Young Life. To learn more about Alumni and Friends, go to alum.yl.org​.​