Gillis died Tuesday at Meadows Regional Hospital in Vidalia with his family by his side, according to Sammons Funeral Home in Soperton. The funeral home was handling arrangements.
In 2001, the Democratic lawmaker was honored by the National Conference of State Legislators as the longest-serving state legislator in the country. He served in the state Senate continuously from 1962 until his retirement in 2004. He had previously served for 12 years in the Georgia House.
If he had not retired, Gillis would have faced state Sen. Jack Hill of Reidsville after the boundaries of the district changed through redistricting. Gillis, in a 2004 interview with The Courier Herald, said that in addition to the work of learning a new district, friendship played a part in his decision.
“I didn’t want to run against a good friend,” Gillis said of Hill.
Hill said Gillis was known for working hard for his district.
“To me, he will always be a great friend,” Hill told the Courier Herald. “His service transcends so many huge events. There was not an event or a result that Sen. Gillis wasn’t a part of. The state made tremendous progress because of his vision.
“He just optimized public service,” Hill added, “and he won’t be replaced or forgotten anytime.”
Born in 1918 in Soperton, Gillis attended Georgia Military College and received a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia in 1939. He returned home and worked in his family’s timber and land management business. Both his father and grandfather served in the General Assembly, and Gillis was first elected to office in 1941.
“You could say I was born into it,” Gillis said in the 2004 interview. “Members of my family have been in politics all my life.”
During his career, Gillis worked with more than a dozen governors and served as Senate president pro tempore for six years. He worked on programs to increase the number of doctors in rural areas and pushed for the creation of technical colleges to provide education in rural areas. In his obituary, Gillis’ proudest accomplishments included work on the creation of the dental school at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and of the Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon.
Kirby Godsey, Mercer University’s chancellor, said Gillis’ desire to improve rural health care drove his support for the medical school, which state funds helped start. Its initial mission was to offer primary care to underserved parts of the state.
“The majority of those thousands of graduates do serve in the underserved areas,” Godsey told The Telegraph of Macon. “More of Mercer’s medical school graduates remain to serve the people of Georgia than those of any other medical school in Georgia, including the public schools.”
Godsey said Gillis served on the medical school’s board of governors for about 30 years.
The Regional Medical Technology Center at Southeastern Technical College in Vidalia was named in his honor.
Upon Gillis’ retirement, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue named him to the board of the Georgia Ports Authority.
“He was a great friend to the entire state, but particularly had his hand on some great things in east central Georgia that helped so many people have the opportunity for a better life,” said Dubose Porter, a former state lawmaker who serves as CEO of The Courier Herald.
A funeral service was scheduled for Friday at the First Baptist Church of Soperton with burial to follow at a family cemetery in Treutlen County.