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An Enlightened Retirement

A retired advertising executive goes in search of the Buddha.

Written by Philip Baker
meditation bowl

Forty years ago, Dennis Gillespie found himself traversing the South China Sea.

“I was on a freighter out in Borneo, and I can distinctly remember thinking I’m going to go to the University of Chicago someday, and I’m going to study divinity,” he says. 

At the time, Gillespie was a twenty-three-year-old Peace Corps volunteer fresh out of Harvard. He took no immediate steps to act on his maritime thought. He got married. He pursued a career in advertising, working as a writer and creative director.

Even after he moved to Chicago years later, divinity school was nowhere near the top of his mind. 

“I’ve always had an interest in other things—in literature, particularly—and religion as well. I liked my day job, but I wanted to do something else.”

That something else first took the form of a PhD in English from Loyola University. It took him nine years of part-time study. He completed a dissertation on American spiritual autobiographies, which he connected to the work of contemporary American poets.

“I have an academic interest in learning and a lifetime interest in learning,” he says.

About Dennis Gillespie

Creative Director, BBDS (retired)
Youngstown, OH
Dog walking; following his children's adventures

Scholarship Without the Pressure

As it happens, Gillespie’s downtown Chicago office building was directly across the street from the University of Chicago Gleacher Center.  He wandered in one day and had a look at some of the brochures in the lobby. It was then he discovered the Returning Scholars program, a non-degree program through which students can enroll in courses offered by the University’s graduate and undergraduate departments.

“I immediately saw the program as an opportunity to take courses in religion at a very high level of scholarship, but without a lot of high pressure,” he says, pointing out that in the Returning Scholars program you’re not graded; you just have to be faithful to the work at hand. 

At first, he took classes on Buddhism. With a longstanding interest in the religion—mostly from a practitioner’s standpoint—he knew learning about it in an academic way would give him an entirely new perspective. 

“People—even in this day and age—have a spiritual part of them that they direct in different ways; I just happen to direct mine in an academic way,” he says. “The classes fulfilled a part of me that is not easily realized in the rough and tumble day-to-day life of marketing. It was just a different space in me that needed to be acknowledged.”

As a Returning Scholar, Gillespie felt he had access to the wider University as well. He particularly appreciated a lunchtime series on religious ethics he attended that was not a part of the curriculum but available to Returning Scholars.

“I think people have lots of parts to their brains, as well as their bodies, and when they have an opportunity to engage a part not being used at the time it can be really wonderful,” he says. “The University of Chicago offers plenty of ways to do it.”

Intellectual Vibrations

Gillespie is particularly grateful to the Returning Scholars program for the next academic step it facilitated for him at the University. It was then his premonition in the South China Sea was fulfilled.

Approaching retirement, he had the idea that he might pursue an MA in religious studies. If the Returning Scholars program was a great way to explore some academic areas, he now felt ready to apply a sharper focus to his study of religion. 

He asked two professors to write him letters of recommendation, noting that the professors are very accommodating to Returning Scholars. “It was in no small measure because of those two faculty members who wrote letters of recommendation for me that I was able to matriculate in the Master of Arts in Religious Studies.” 

Looking broadly at his time at the University of Chicago, Gillespie calls it a reminder that everyday life has a context. “Life is not always about competing,” he says. He calls it a deepening of his perspective both on the world and the people he interacts with.

“I’ve been to a lot of colleges and some colleges just have an intellectual vibration,” he says. “For anybody in the workaday world, it’s nice to have another space to be or to exist. People have different avenues for being fulfilled and this was a part of me that enjoyed that kind of satisfaction.”

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