Walt Gillette, a philanthropic adviser and fundraiser for WAMU in Washington, D.C., for nearly 14 years, died Jan. 13 from complications stemming from a brain injury caused by a fall. He was 64.
Colleagues knew Gillette for his passion for public radio, his wry wit and a sanguine nature that never waned even during tough fundraising campaigns. His love for music introduced him to his wife, Carol, and remained a constant throughout his life, from the thousands of jazz records he collected to his participation in the Maryland Community Band.
After serving in the Marines, Gillette and his wife moved in 1987 from Japan to Pensacola, Fla., where he found his first job with the American Lung Association. When a fundraising position opened up at WUWF in Pensacola in 1988, Gillette went for it despite his relative naiveté about the world of public radio (and a car stereo that was tuned to the local Top 40 station).
“He said, ‘I think I did pretty good in the interview, and I think I might like working for public radio,’” his wife said. “Now I’m thinking what an understatement that was, 30-plus years later.”
Gillette worked as director of development and finance at WUWF, a one-man band that grew into a fundraising team of four full-time staff. As one of his early creative endeavors in fundraising, he helped design a new station logo that would build the station’s brand. The “WUWF Hound” characters graced mugs, some as “news hounds” and “jazz hounds,” and boosted the station’s individual contributions.
Following a stint at the WLRN in Miami, he was hired as director of development at WAMU in 2002. Carey Needham, now associate GM at WAMU, arrived at the station around the same time and recalled a smaller, more modest fundraising operation.
“Because of Walt’s experience, he really turned things around at a critical time at the station,” Needham said, noting Gillette’s pioneering move to introduce a vehicle donation program. “He turned that potential into a reality”
Gillette’s warmth and charm solidified relationships with donors.
“He had an amazing memory — he would remember a person so quickly,” said Laura M. Chambers, who served on the WAMU community council and assisted with fundraising. “We could be at an embassy and they were doing a large fundraiser for WAMU; he would know everyone who was there, could point out to me who the new donors were. I remember bringing on a new community council member and him remembering her immediately, even though they probably met once.”
Those who worked with Gillette recalled a tall, affable man with a deep voice who made everyone in the room feel comfortable. He deployed patience, positivity and a dry sense of humor in his work and reminded supporters that they could contribute at any level.
“When it comes to fundraising for a nonprofit, it’s not the most exciting piece that you want to listen to — there’s a sense of drudgery,” Chambers said. “It was so great to hear him speak — he made it fun. There was never any shaming that we never raised enough money. There was a can-do spirit that he brought to it.”
Mark McDonald, who worked as PD at WAMU from 2001 until 2014, said he was immediately struck by Gillette’s patience and gentle presence. When the station buzzed with angst during hectic pledge drives, Gillette would assure the team that the numbers would be better the next day.
“The fact that he never panicked when things weren’t going so well was a real reassurance to everybody,” McDonald said. “In an atmosphere full of emotional people, Walt had a great sense of humor. He also listened very carefully, and he understood that programming had a job to do, that the fundraising side had a job to do. He understood public radio more than anyone I could think of.”
Gillette’s colleagues nicknamed him “Captain,” a moniker that nodded to his time as a Marine but also to his fierce affection for his team. As an experienced fundraiser who loved sharing his knowledge and fundraising strategies, he became a popular figure both at WAMU and throughout the public radio system, McDonald said. He mentored colleagues, making sure they polished their skills with more training and attended conferences, including those on diversity and inclusion, that would move the station forward, said Nanci Gius, front desk manager at WAMU and a former business development manager at the station.
“He stood for bringing [people] up, whatever way he could. He always stood behind them,” she said. “And the concept of public radio, he understood what it meant and was always willing to share that with you so we could make sure public radio lives on.”
After leaving WAMU in 2015, Gillette continued fundraising for veteran services and as a private consultant for philanthropic organizations. He returned to his musical roots playing trumpet and flugelhorn in the Maryland Community Band, an adult ensemble for University of Maryland alumni. Never content just to play, he also developed ways to fundraise for the group.
“He just was not a participant,” Carol said. “He saw ways to make things better and more interesting and fun, and he always threw out his ideas and ran with it, and with such enthusiasm.”
Gillette was born Dec. 4, 1957, in Waverly, N.Y. He attended the University of Miami and later the University of Maryland in College Park. He played trumpet in Maryland’s marching band, where he met his wife while practicing a configuration that spelled “GO TERPS” on the field at halftime.
“We would pass within 10 feet of each other, and each time we switched and turned, he just started talking to me,” Carol said. “That just led to talking before and after band, going to band parties together, starting to date, walking me to class, and pretty soon he was over at my house eating lunch and dinner.”
Carol and Gillette graduated from Maryland in 1981 and married shortly after. Gillette then entered the U.S. Marine Corps, where he became an adjutant and served at Camp Kinser on Okinawa, Japan, for three years. He left active duty service in 1987.
Gillette is survived by his wife of 40 years, his mother and his father-in-law. A memorial service is planned for the spring.