Gay Stuttle Gilliam’s higher power has led her on an amazing journey, one filled with highs and lows, joy and sorrow.
The journey began July 3, 1952, when Gay Lynn Stuttle was born in Peoria, IL, the fifth of Fred Louis and Ellen Soward Stuttle’s six children. It wasn’t an easy childhood, shaped as it was by divorce and scarred by Ellen Stuttle’s battle with a debilitating illness. Gay remained eternally grateful for her godparents, Ruth and Willis Harms, who lived close by and provided a loving and stabilizing influence for Gay and her siblings.
Gay was a child of the ‘60s, a baby boomer growing up in a neighborhood filled with kids to play with and creeks to explore. Like her older siblings, she attended Columbia Grade School and Peoria Central High (Go, Lions!). But the death of their mother during Gay’s senior year left her reeling. Her father, a busy orthopedic surgeon, had moved back into the family home but largely left the kids to fend for themselves. Gay dutifully got up each morning, drove her younger brother to school, then returned home to crawl back into her jammies and watch TV. She often remembered with a smile the day that Dad, alerted by the school that his daughter was on the verge of failing because of frequent absences, surprised her by coming home midmorning. Caught in the act of skipping school, Gay expected the worst from a father notorious for his temper. Instead, Dad poured them both a drink and settled in for a heartfelt father-daughter conversation.
Gay started attending school again and after graduation headed west to the University of Arizona. She stayed a year, then returned home to pursue a career in health care, graduating from Methodist Hospital School of Radiologic Technology in 1973.
By her own admission, Gay was a wild child in those days, given to too much partying, especially after being introduced to drugs by her oldest brother, Fred. But when she met Alan Lipinski, she thought she’d found lasting love and was eager to settle down with him. Gay and Al were married on a beautiful spring day in 1976 at Peoria’s Mt. Hawley Country Club and began their new life together on a cruiser—first on the Illinois River and then in south Florida. Before long, boats gave way to an apartment in West Palm Beach. Their daughter, Dawn Lynn, born in Florida in 1979, would be Gay’s greatest joy.
For a while the family basked in island life in the Bahamas before returning to the West Palm area. But as her marriage began to break apart, Gay found herself falling ever deeper into despair and substance abuse. Intervention by a caring friend together with her own inner strength led Gay to rehab, where she took the first step in her journey to sobriety—a journey that would guide her through the next three decades.
The journey took Gay to southern Illinois, where friends Pam and Vince Lacey invited Gay and Dawn to stay with them until Gay got back on her feet again. Eventually Gay found a job, a place of her own, and ongoing support through AA. And in time, she even found love again.
At first glance, Charles Russell Gilliam seemed an unlikely fit. Gay was outgoing and blessed with an adventurous soul that led her to travel and seek out new places. Russ, a quiet widower, had never ventured far from the rural community where he was born, married, raised his family, and worked in the coalmines. But somehow they found strength and happiness in one another that would last a lifetime. Russ also filled the role of father to Dawn (and later, grandfather to Fletcher). After several years together, Gay and Russ were married on January 23, 2003. Gay settled into Russ’s house in rural Harrisburg, IL. She also introduced Russ to different parts of the country, from Colorado to Florida.
Throughout her adult life, Gay had a rewarding career as a radiographer. She loved working in health care and helping others. And because experienced X-ray techs like Gay were in demand, she never had trouble finding a job. After her return to Illinois, she worked at Harrisburg Medical Center, Herrin Hospital, and Hardin County General Hospital, where she always opted for the third shift. Like her mother and siblings, Gay was a confirmed night owl. Whenever she and Russ visited her brother and his wife in Peoria, Russ and Rosemary would go to bed early while Gay and James talked the night away.
These two had a special bond forged as the youngest kids in a large and largely dysfunctional family. They had unhappy memories of childhood trauma, but shared happier times, too, especially with their godparents—eating popcorn out of Ruth’s colorful metal bowls, picking ripe, juicy tomatoes from Will’s garden, and going on camping trips with Ruth and Willis in their little trailer. And of course they both loved the white ceramic bunny that stood guard in their godparents’ yard.
When Ruth and Willis moved into a retirement home, Ruth gave the bunny to James. Every spring he’d set it out by the birdfeeder in his yard, and every fall tuck the bunny safely back inside the house before the first frost. He loved that bunny, but he knew Gay did, too. In fact, Gay loved all things bunny-related. Her house was overflowing with rabbits of every size, material, and color, leading Russ to joke that the floor would give way if Gay brought just one more bunny home! But she did get one more. On the 25thanniversary of her sobriety, James presented Gay with the white rabbit that meant so much to both of them (and the one that undoubtedly started her on the path to bunny love).
The bond between brother and sister was strengthened when James, who had the same genetic illness as their mother, needed a kidney transplant. Gay volunteered to be a donor and although Rosemary was chosen instead, Gay was with the couple throughout the process. In 2009, she traveled by train to Chicago for multiple surgeries, stayed with James and Rosemary in a hotel after the transplant, and spent another week with them in Peoria to aid in their recovery. James and Rosemary agree they couldn’t have made it without Gay’s loving care and support.
Dawn and Fletcher could say the same. Through all the ups and downs in her life, Gay gave her all to Dawn, surrounding her daughter with unconditional love and imparting a strength that has sustained Dawn through her own challenges. Dawn also inherited Gay’s love of camping and they often headed into the Shawnee National Forest for some quality mother/daughter time around the campfires they both enjoyed so much. After Fletcher was born, he joined them on camping trips, as well as spending lots of quality time with Grandma GG and Grandpa Russ at their home or his. Gay and Russ stayed in Louisville with Fletcher whenever Dawn needed them. Later when Gay’s health began to fail, Dawn, Fletcher, and Dawn’s loving partner Chuck McNay made frequent trips to visit her in Harrisburg. As Dawn once posted on Facebook, “If I turn into my Mother, or even half the woman she is, I’ll consider my life a successful one.”
Dawn wasn’t the only one who drew inspiration from her mother. Gay—quick to help anyone facing the same challenges she had known—was always grateful for the opportunity to share her experience, strength, and hope with fellow travelers and others through 29-plus years of sobriety.
But while she bravely beat back substance abuse and depression, the one thing Gay could never conquer was cigarettes. She retired in May 2016, hoping for many more years with her beloved family and friends, but it was not to be. Tests showed Gay had a genetic mutation that made smoking many times more hazardous for her than for most people. Her lungs were disintegrating, leaving Gay tethered to an oxygen tank and struggling for every breath.
With typical Gay courage, she faced the inevitable head on. She told loved ones matter-of-factly about her situation, then focused on getting her affairs in order. That included making sure Dawn and Fletcher were provided for, calling friends and family to say goodbye while she still could, and asking James to look after Russell for her. She wasn’t afraid, she told her brother, but admitted, “I will so miss the love and care from Russ all these years, my very special relationship with Dawn, and being Grandma GG to Fletcher.”
Gay Stuttle Gilliam passed away peacefully at home on Saturday, September 14, 2019, surrounded by loved ones. She is survived by her husband and caregiver, Russ Gilliam; daughter Dawn Bruneau (Chuck McNay); grandson Fletcher Bruneau; brother James (Rosemary) Stuttle; sisters Ellen Stuttle (Larry Gould) and Lucky Stuttle. She is also survived by her extended family: brother-in-law Jimmy (Hiroko) Gilliam; sisters-in-law Peggy Gilliam, Janice (Glen) Lankfort, and Linda Blumenthal; stepchildren Michelle Lovellette and Ben (Misty) Gilliam; stepgrandchildren Duston, Edith, Kari, Shane, Jordan, Nick, Mason, and Aden; and step-greatgrandkids Khayden, Macey, Esabella, Destinie, Raigen, D’Lylia, Makenna, Keleigh, Kendon, Klaydn, Kadence, Crispin, Trinity, Kasen, Kade, Kennady, and Ella.
In addition, to her friend Pam, Gay leaves behind friends Mary Peterson, Lisa Wharton, and Alice Kaylor, whom she was especially fond of. She was preceded in death by Nancy Nichols, a dear friend Gay took care of for years and who referred to Gay as her “velveteen rabbi.”
Gay was also preceded in death by her parents, brothers Fred Stuttle, Jr., and Jon Stuttle, and godparents Ruth and Willis Harms.
Special thanks to Hospice of Southern Illinois for all their help. Cremation rites have been accorded by Colonial Terrace, Eldorado, IL. A celebration of Gay’s amazing life will be scheduled at a later date. In lieu of flowers, Gay asks that you plant a tree in her memory.
How graceful her higher power has been indeed.