NEW HAVEN, W.Va. — A vintage U.S. Navy uniform caught the attention of Rhonda Tennant while she was “antiquing” this summer at the French City Flea Market in Gallipolis, Ohio.
“I love antiques, but that wasn’t the kind of thing I was looking for,” Tennant said. “For some reason I was drawn to it. The uniform was in such good condition it just made me stop and look. There it was, in the middle of a lot of unrelated stuff, just on the back of an old chair.”
Upon further inspection, she found the pants and hat in a box nearby, along with a last name, Gillespie. She thought it didn’t seem fitting that the well cared for uniform was just there among the other miscellaneous flea market items.
“I was reluctant to purchase it, I don’t collect that type of thing, but I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that the uniform appeared to have been well cared for, someone had valued it – how or why did it end up in a flea market?
“I am very empathetic to veterans. My father and two brothers both served. As a teacher for over 40 years, I included a lot of patriotic activities throughout the year. I always made sure Veterans Day was covered in our activities. I think it is so important to honor and respect our veterans. To see this beautiful, vintage uniform discarded… I just couldn’t leave it, it seemed disrespectful that it should end up like that.”
Veteran recognition is important to Tennant, a local educator and member of the Mason County Board of Education, who has received awards for her efforts including Veterans contributions in her classroom studies from groups on the local, state, and national level, including West Virginia Veterans of Foreign Wars Teacher of the Year.
After agreeing on a price of $20, Tennant took the uniform home along with the box it had been in when purchased by the vendor, who said he had obtained it at an estate sale.
She continued to wonder about its history, so she posted a photo of the uniform on Facebook.
“As soon as I posted the photo, my Facebook page exploded. There was an outpouring of, ‘You have got to find who this belonged to and return it to the family.’”
Tennant received some unexpected assistance; her friend Malynda Finley researched the name and found an obituary for Frank Nathan Gillespie who had passed away in 2018. This information enabled Finley to locate his gravesite.
With the new information and the encouragement of her Facebook friends, Tennant located the soldier’s only son, Greg Gillespie, and gave him a call.
“He was quite surprised when I called to tell him I had the uniform. It had been passed to him by his father, and he was certain he had taken it with him when he moved to Florida.”
When he realized that he didn’t have it in his possession, he was extremely grateful she had rescued it. They discussed how she could return the uniform to the family, and it was decided that since he would be passing it to his son Zachary, she could arrange to return it to him.
Tennant said returning the uniform became very personal for her, “I don’t have anything from my father’s service in World War II. I knew how much it would mean to me to receive something from my father, it would mean the world to me.”
Zachary Gillespie lives in Huron, Ohio, and Tennant said she considered driving there to deliver the uniform in person, but decided, along with Zachary, to mail it instead.
“I would have made the drive, but with everything going on with COVID-19, we decided it was best just to mail it.”
The uniform, which was indeed treasured and valued by the family, arrived at Zachary’s home in time for Veteran’s Day and the second anniversary of Frank Gillespie’s passing.
So the question of how a vendor at the French City Flea Market came to purchase a well cared for Navy uniform at an estate sale had been answered: After Frank’s passing, the family hired an estate agent to liquidate the property, so it had gone with those items to the sale. Greg had no idea it was still in his father’s house when the estate agents picked up the contents, and would never have known what happened to it if Rhonda Tennant had not “rescued it” that day at the market.
The obituary for Frank Nathan Gillespie, of Nitro, West Virginia, included that he was born Feb. 9, 1923 and died Nov. 8, 2018. He is buried at Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans, West Virginia. He was a graduate of Dunbar High School and Springfield, MA College. While at Springfield College, he was on the gymnastics team. During his college years he worked as a professional circus clown performing on the trampoline and as a juggler. He was also a member of the Barbershop Quartet at Morris Harvey College (University of Charleston) while working on his advanced degree in education. He was a science teacher in St. Albans and served as a counselor and vice principal of the new St. Albans High School and returned to the Junior High School as principal in 1962. Before entering education he worked in and remained involved in the UMCA, teaching, diving, and swimming at the Charleston YMCA. His work in youth programs continued the summer months, working at Tapawingo Farm Camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania with his wife Phyllis for over 18 years.
His college studies were interrupted by World War II when he enlisted in the U.S.Navy Medical Corp. He served three years at the Medical Research Institute, National Naval Medical Center.
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Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing.