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Grumman project manager James Gillis, who helped put men on the moon, dies at 89

James D. Gillis, seen with his wife, Anita,

James D. Gillis, seen with his wife, Anita, in 2000, was part of the team that built the lunar module for Apollo 11 and was a Bethpage-plant project manager for LM6, Apollo 12, the mission that took a crew of three to the moon in November 1969. Credit: Gillis family

Before Charles (Pete) Conrad and Alan L. Bean became the third and fourth men ever to land and walk on the moon the two sat down for dinner at the Floral Park home of the man who oversaw construction of the Grumman lunar module that would get them there, James D. Gillis.

But during a career that spanned about three decades, Gillis didn't just have a hand in spaceflight. He also worked to help Grumman produce a few projects that served a nation closer to home, as a manager on the famed F-14 Tomcat fighter jet and construction of the Grumman-built vans for the U.S. Postal Service.

Born May 25, 1930, in Brooklyn to Scottish immigrants, Gillis died Feb. 9 from complications after a fall and broken hip, his son John said. He was 89.

He leaves behind a legacy a kid growing up without a father in the Queensbridge Houses public housing project in Long Island City could have only dreamed about, John Gillis said.

"We all really knew what he was working on, what he was accomplishing, was all very important," John Gillis, one of four children, said of his father, adding: "But my father was a quiet guy, a humble guy. He never tooted his own horn, though I can't think of anything we've done greater than that, land on the moon."

In fact, an item in a 1975 edition of Newsday headlined "MOON MAN" quoted Gillis, also part of the team that helped Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin get to the moon with Apollo 11, saying he felt "like part of Christopher Columbus' crew" when he saw Armstrong first step off the lunar module and onto the moon on TV on July 20, 1969.

"We didn't look on it as a big challenge," Gillis said of the lunar module project, "because I don't think most of us knew what the challenge was going to be. I think it took us a while to get caught up in the feeling. I don't think we realized where the hell we were going."

Certainly, it all was a path Gillis never envisioned as a kid back in Queens.

He grew up poor. His parents, Mary Rodgers and James Daly Gillis, came to America from Glasgow and, son John Gillis of Floral Park said, "I don't think my grandfather was around." That forced Mary to take work as "a candy dipper" for the old Barricini Candies. The single mother finally benefiting from that hard work and good fortune when she landed an apartment in the new Queensbridge Houses, built as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

James Gillis grew up there, becoming a star basketball player at Long Island City High School. He was accepted for entry by Cooper Union college, but, after running home to tell his mother the good news, Gillis saw the dream shattered — his mother Mary answered by handing him a letter, saying he had  been drafted by the Navy.

It was the Korean War. And Gillis became an electrician's mate, serving in Cuba.

The dream of Cooper Union having fallen through, Gillis did his tour, then attended Pratt Institute, earning a degree in electrical engineering. He first went to work on intercontinental ballistic missiles and then joined Grumman, where he soon found himself assigned to construction of the lunar module.

He even was selected to give a personal tour of the Grumman plant in Bethpage, and the new lunar module, to world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Part of the team that built the LM for Apollo 11, Gillis was Bethpage-plant project manager for LM6, Apollo 12, the mission that took the crew of Bean, Conrad and Apollo 12 command module pilot Richard F. (Dick) Gordon to the moon in November 1969, that LM landing on the surface that Nov. 20 — the 5-foot-6 Conrad stepping onto the moon with the not-so-memorable words: "Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me."

But before that bit of forgettable history, John Gillis recalled Conrad, Bean and Gordon coming to his house in Floral Park, where his mother, Anita, made the crew spaghetti and meatballs.

Antia Barone, who was from Astoria, had met James back at Long Island City High and the two married Sept. 6, 1952, eventually raising four children — Charles, Patricia, James and John — at their home in Floral Park.

Following the lunar module projects Gillis took over wing assembly production for the F-14 Tomcat fighter project, heading an electron beam welding operation that the Grumman Plant News newsletter touted as saving "a significant number of manufacturing-hours," which James Gillis was quoted as saying provided "major cost saving" as well as better quality. Gillis later helped Grumman set up an assembly facility to build a new delivery truck for the U.S. Postal Service.

John Gillis said the most-incredible part of the jobs his father did was that most of it was done in an age before computers, before electronic calculators. "They were kind of working in the dark," John Gillis said. "My father would always tell us, 'We didn't even have calculators back then. We used slide-rules.'

"I think he was very proud of what was accomplished, that he was part of it, and he was astonished by it," Gillis said.

James Gillis is survived by wife Anita and children, John and wife Tracy of Floral Park, daughter Patricia and husband Mike Monaghan of Floral Park, and son James and wife Barbara of Brookfield, Connecticut, as well as six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

He was predeceased by his son Charles.

A Mass was said at Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church in Floral Park with interment with military honors at Calverton National Cemetery.

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