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IMHO: It’s No Stretch to Say Gillam Stood Out

  • In this file photograph from 2012, Stretch Gillam, coach of South Royalton, talks to his players at the start of the fourth quarter. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Robert “Stretch” Gillam smiles while umpiring a softball game between Thetford Academy and Rivendell Academy on May 21, 2011, in Orford. Gillam, known primarily in Upper Valley high school basketball circles, died on Monday at age 82. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Sports Editor
Wednesday, August 02, 2017

We’re so attuned to loss in sport — more the personal kind than the on-field variety — that memorials can sometimes be overlooked or difficult to attach importance. Black armbands, minutes of silence, video tributes, testimonials, they can all blur together, lose their significance.

In time, and high school basketball season would be the most appropriate, the Upper Valley hoops community will have to give Robert “Stretch” Gillam his due, be it a night of honor or a seasonlong Honor, such a jersey patch. Whatever it turns out to be, let’s hope Gillam gets the attention he deserves.

Why? Stretch — a 6-foot-4 (or thereabouts) teddy bear of a man, quick with a smile when he saw you — was everywhere. Vermont and New Hampshire. Meriden. Hartford. Bradford. Chester. South Royalton. Hanover. Sticking a pin in every place on an Upper Valley map where Stretch Gillam coached a high school basketball game around here would imperil the viability of the map.

Gillam died at his home in Enfield on Monday at the age of 82. The suddenness of his passing will take his friends and family time to comprehend. Hopefully, they’ll then realize that there wasn’t a part of the Upper Valley high school basketball scene that Gillam didn’t touch.

Two men dominated the high school boys basketball scene in the winters after I arrived here in 1987. Lebanon High’s Lang Metcalf — voice of gravel, face and sweater often a matching red — guided his Raiders to a pair of state championships and more than 500 wins over 30-plus seasons before his retirement in 1997. Once done, Metcalf eased into the grandstand, the gentleman observer, never to coach again.

At the same time, Gillam held sway at Hartford High, having already established himself at Kimball Union Academy. His teams weren’t as successful as his counterpart’s were — Gillam never won a state title in Vermont, where he spent about two-thirds of his career, and had only one state finals appearance to his credit, according to Vermont Basketball Coaches Association record-keeping — but he still won more than 600 games over a very lengthy tenure, one of just three bosses in Vermont history to reach that plateau.

He also built a network of friends among the young men he guided. Stretch’s various lives occasionally intersected because of that.

Years ago, if you needed to find him, Than Wheeler’s Coach’s Corner might be the place. His subterranean restaurant in downtown White River Junction, long since shuttered, was an unofficial hub of Hartford sports. He sometimes employed the young men he also coached.

During an earlier time in my career, Stretch was kind enough to allow me to host a radio program in one corner of his place for part of a year. It was a blast. We encouraged patrons to join us to chat; that changed once we realized the potential to draw inquiries from people of dubious sobriety.

Gillam couldn’t coach basketball 13 months out of the year, although he’d have done it if he could, so other pursuits would occasionally bring us together. Most often, it was during this week of August — Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl week — when he’d be serving as New Hampshire’s athletic director, getting the Granite State squad ready for its football showdown with Vermont.

Surely, there will be people from Lebanon to Castleton thinking of Stretch this week.

But, clearly, there was nothing Stretch loved more than coaching basketball. He was well into his seventh decade — largely uninterrupted — as either a head or assistant coach at the time of his death.

He first took to clipboard and sideline at KUA in 1959. He’d be in charge of a high school boys basketball team for the next 53 years without fail, from long stretches at Kimball Union and Hartford to shorter runs at Oxbow, Green Mountain and South Royalton.

Even after ending his last head coaching stint at SoRo in 2012, he continued to pursue opportunities, take calls and grab gigs as an assistant, right up through last winter at Hanover High.

While not as overtly fiery as Metcalf could be, Gillam had his moments. One acquaintance joked to me on Tuesday about coming into contact with Stretch as both a fellow coach and basketball referee. Gillam sometimes provided pearls to the coaches and earfuls to the zebras. But never enough to alienate.

His run is done, so it’s time now for someone to break out a sewing machine. Make a bunch of patches. Let them all say Stretch; that’s how we knew him. Make them in KUA black and orange, Hartford blue and red, Oxbow purple and white, Green Mountain green and yellow, South Royalton blue and gold, Hanover maroon and white. Sew them on the uniforms.

If you didn’t notice, that’s pretty much a full rainbow of color.

That stands out. Just like Robert “Stretch” Gillam did.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.