Pioneer in field of open adoption dies at 76
As first lay director of Catholic Charities, Eugene Gillis started national effort
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Eugene Gillis, 76, a pioneer in the adoption field, died Nov 26 in Green Bay.
As the first lay director of Catholic Charities, Gillis led the social service agency in formulating the now nationally recognized groundwork for open adoption.
Open adoptions are those where the birth parents and adoptive parents share information and contact with each other. This allows for children to later have access to family and medical information.
"He was the pioneer of our open adoption program," recalled Janice Thomas, who worked with Gillis at Catholic Charities from his start there as a social worker in 1957 until his retirement from the diocese in 1987. "Actually, that was the beginning of open adoption in the United States. We had all the states calling our office to find out how to do open adoptions."
Catholic Charities began open adoptions in the early 1970s, becoming the model for open adoption across the country. It became so popular that Catholic Charities published a how-to booklet. Now considered the norm, open adoption was first received skeptically.
"We put up with a lot of resistance," Thomas said. "A lot of people thought we fell out of a banana tree and landed straight on our heads."
But Gillis persisted, keeping the interests of the children in the forefront.
"Gene had great insight as far as the need of children and adults," said Ruth Bruha Mettner, who worked with Gillis and followed him as director in 1984. She said that when Gillis realized the number of adults who had been adopted and were now coming to Catholic Charities to find information about their biological families, "it really woke him up. 'We have to do something about it,'" she remembers Gillis saying.
Bruha Mettner said that Gillis, who had a master's degree in social work from the University of St. Louis, was always open to new ideas to better serve people. "He was a very brilliant man, a man before his time."
Thomas remembers Gillis as a person for whom "openness and honesty were a concept for life."
Besides his professional interests, Gillis was a wine connoisseur, a gourmet cook, an outdoorsman, a barbershop singer, and had helped welcome many foreign exchange students over the years. He was a member of St. Patrick Parish in Green Bay.
He is survived by a brother, Rupert (Nora) Gillis; two sisters, Beatrice (John) Giesler and Lorraine Miller; many nieces, nephews and friends.
The Mass of Christian Burial was held Nov. 29 at St. Patrick Church. A memorial fund has been established.