Scott Gillespie
See more of the story

Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


On Memorial Day, many of us need help to make sense of the past.

Every year, our family and no doubt others can turn to faded letters and yellowed newspaper clips handed down in boxes and albums of memories. We can study the photos and wonder how those lost in service might have lived their lives if they had not ended too soon. And we can ponder the threads that connect us.

James W. Gillespie, my father's only sibling, graduated from tiny Carlton High School in northern Minnesota in May 1942.

"Four of us graduating expect to be called into the army by June 10, seven days after we graduate," James wrote in a letter to my mother. "We will be leaving in a big group of about 200 from Carlton County."

Two years later, the uncle I never met was gone forever before his 20th birthday. The local newspaper, the Carlton County Vidette, told his story:

"Once more in this awful war, a Carlton family and their friends have been saddened by the receipt of one of those dreaded telegrams, 'The war department regrets to advise you, etc.'

"This time the message came to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson Gillespie, advising them of the death of their youngest son, which occurred on Mindanao, in the Philippines, on April 11, while in action with an infantry division."

The story explains that James had served in New Guinea and the Philippines and for a time was acting as company clerk before asking to return to combat with his unit. "And it was while thus engaged that he met his death."

The news obituary does not have a byline, but it's clear that the writer felt the weight of the assignment.

"It is with a feeling of almost personal loss that we print this obituary of one of Carlton's finest young men. From the time James was in his early teens, he had the love of newspaper work and printing in his blood.

"His hobby in his early years was a small printing plant in the basement of his home. During the last year or two of high school, there was scarcely a day James did not stop by The Vidette office to watch our printers work and to talk over the profession which he loved so well. When he was home for his last furlough, he assured us that he would be back after the war to go to work in The Vidette office."

Sometime in April 1945, my grandparents received a letter from the commanding officer of their son's infantry unit that tried to answer some of the questions they no doubt had.

"I feel that it will ease your mind to know that your son died an instantaneous death as a result of enemy rifle fire in the performance of hazardous duty leading his squad up a hill objective near San Ramon, Mindanao, Philippine Islands. James' courageous action and splendid example of leadership so inspired his men that they were able to carry on and help take the objective."

My father, Robert Gillespie, also served in the Pacific during World War II, doing what one Vidette story in the family photo album calls "work of a secret nature" as a Marine Corps master sergeant. He came home; his younger brother did not, and he carried that pain his entire life.

Like James, my dad also loved newspapers. Or maybe he fell in love with them because James did — I wish I had asked about that before he was gone, too.

Without a college degree, my father somehow hustled a postwar job at the Duluth paper, starting a career that would take him to the Milwaukee Sentinel and a senior editing role. Thanks more to nepotism than skill, I would eventually join him there after college as a beginning reporter.

I'm bringing this family history to you on Memorial Day 2024 because this is my last week at the Star Tribune after 32 years in news and opinion, and more than 40 in reporting and editing jobs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. As retirement nears, I'm thinking a lot about the past. And I'm filled with gratitude.

I'm thankful for the readers and subscribers who have supported our journalism, and the community members, business leaders and officeholders who have shared their perspectives with us. I'm grateful for having had the opportunity to work with hundreds of dedicated journalists, many of whom became my friends.

I'm indebted to my wife and sons, whose love and support never wavered despite the late nights, interrupted weekends and distracted vacations that come with a life in news.

And, on Memorial Day, I am thankful for military veterans like James and Robert Gillespie, and my two older brothers, as well as all the other men and women who have served our country with honor so that we can live freely.

James never had the chance to return to Carlton and the Vidette. But I like to think that his passion for newspapers was somehow passed along, first to his only sibling and then to me.

There's plenty to read online about ancestral connections and genetic memory. For now, I'll stick with those old letters and newspaper clips. They tell the story that I'll revisit every Memorial Day, always in awe of the courage of those who came before us and helped shape our lives.

Scott Gillespie, the Star Tribune's editorial page editor and vice president, is retiring. A search for his successor is underway. In the interim, Star Tribune Opinion will be led by David Banks ( Commentary submissions and inquiries are best sent to