Longtime Basketball Coach Robert ‘Stretch’ Gillam Dies at 82

  • 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 »

  • Hartford High basketball coach Stretch Gillam pacifies player Billy Vielleux after Vielleux's reaction to a travelling call drew a technical foul against Hanover Tuesday, January 5, 1993. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    In this 2011 file photograph, Robert "Stretch" Gillam is seen as he enters his 53rd year as a high school basketball coach. He was leading the South Royalton boys basketball team. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/1/2017 6:17:33 PM
Modified: 8/2/2017 4:05:58 PM

Enfield — Robert “Stretch” Gillam, who racked up more than 600 wins while coaching boys high school basketball in the Upper Valley across seven different decades, died on Monday at his home along Lake Mascoma.

He was 82 and died of natural causes, according to Jeff Knight of Knight Funeral Home in White River Junction.

Gillam’s tireless enthusiasm for the game, experience and solid 6-foot-4 frame left a mark, as did his record. By 2009, Gillam’s teams had compiled a record of 618-496 and he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. He continued coaching into his 80s.

“He’s a legend and loved to coach,” longtime Windsor High basketball coach Harry Ladue said. “He wanted to be around kids all the time. He was a pillar in our basketball association and loved the game. It’s going to seem strange not seeing him around.”

To many of his players, Gillam was not only a coach, but also a father figure and a fellow basketball junkie.

“The biggest thing for me was his presence on the basketball court,” said Billy Vielleux, a shooting guard who played four years at Hartford High School before graduating in 1993. “When he walked into the gym, everyone noticed him, which made it special for all of us, being his players. We kind of fed off his presence.”

Vielleux, a paraeducator at Hartford High who remained close to Gillam, said even as the coach approached age 60, he relished scrimmaging with his players.

“He used to get right in it with us,” Vielleux said. “He wasn’t afraid to use his sharp elbows on us to get us to do what he wanted us to do. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up, and he would win.”

Jeff Moreno, who played basketball at Hartford High during the same era and now is the school’s athletic director and assistant principal, said Gillam cared about his players off the court as much as on, and helped inspire Moreno in his career.

“He was certainly an important person in my formative years, and a person who made me want to get into coaching and athletics and have an impact on people,” said Moreno, who also recalled Gillam as a tough opponent when he took to the court.

“If Coach wanted to run with us, he owned the paint,” Moreno said.

Scott Fitz, an Avon Lake, Ohio, resident who played three sports that Gillam helped coach at Kimball Union Academy in the early 1960s, said he “was liked by everybody” and a guiding force.

“I needed direction, and Stretch really helped me,” Fitz said. “He was young and enthusiastic, and he let us play our game.”

If his players fed off him, Gillam seemed to get energy from them, too.

“I still have a lot of fun coaching, and I’m not ready to give it up, and I’m not ready to give up on those guys,” Gillam said in 2007, at age 72, when he notched his 600th win.

A Rutland native, Gillam graduated from Mount St. Joseph Academy in 1954, where he scored 15 points in a New England Interscholastic Basketball Tournament semifinal loss at Boston Garden.

He began coaching at KUA in 1959 and stayed at the Meriden school for 17 years, and then coached at Hartford High School for 18 years.

That was followed by a nine-year stint at Oxbow High School in Bradford, Vt., and a similar tenure at Green Mountain High School in Chester, Vt.

After a short stint at South Royalton High, Gillam in recent years worked as an assistant coach at Hanover High School. An inductee as well of the Vermont Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Gillam was a devotee of the game itself.

“He couldn’t get basketball out of his system. On nights when his own team wasn’t playing, he would find a game to go to,” recalled Bob Hingston, the retired athletic director in Windsor. “One time when he walked into our gym, I asked him what he was doing here. ... He told me, ‘This is going to be a good game, and there is nowhere else I would like to be.’ ”

Basketball also was a family affair. His wife, Patricia, was a reliable presence at every Gillam-coached game, often accompanied by their daughter, Mary.

His son Joe coached hoops at Hartford High for several years, including taking the head job in 2000, and son Steve referees basketball games across Vermont.

Gillam also had an active life outside the gym. For several years he owned and ran Coach’s Corner, a restaurant near the Hotel Coolidge in downtown White River Junction.

Some of his players bused tables there, while Gillam helped work the bar, take orders and enjoy a good story or two with customers.

And for many years he served as the athletic director for the New Hampshire Shrine team in the annual charity football game against Vermont.

“You will hear nothing but accolades about Stretch Gillam,” said Kristi Morris, general chairman of the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl. “He did a lot for the game.”

Into this summer, Gillam continued working a seasonal job at The Quechee Club, helping with golf bags and carts, and getting another chance to be outside and to talk sports and tell stories.

Funeral arrangements are pending, and while many players will no doubt honor his legacy, he did the same for them years ago.

“I’m really proud of this award,” Gillam said in 2009 of his induction into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. “It’s tribute to the kids that played for me.”

Valley News staff writer Josh Weinreb and correspondent Poody Walsh contributed to this report. John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.

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