Gil Belles: Founder and Advocate

Gill Belles showing a museum artifact to local school children in 2009.

As the community mourns the passing of Gil Belles, the Western Illinois Museum joins our voice in recognizing the far-reaching impact of his life on our community. Gil’s influence can be seen on the organizations he was involved with, as well as in his professional work. He participated with enthusiasm, offered his time and led by example.

Gil became a professor of History at Western Illinois University in 1968 and a few years later he joined an initiative to create a history museum to teach students.  With the museum opened on the third floor of Sherman Hall, he developed and taught the course The Administration of Small History Museums, which provided professional experience for students. To this day, the museum welcomes students to gain hands on experience.

Gil Belles welcoming guests to the 2014 recognition event, Sherman Hall Revisited

It was soon clear that Gil was one of the museum’s biggest advocates, developing programs with Leon Clements and other museum founders about fur trapping, frontier life, crafts and the annual ice cream social –an event that remained his favorite.

As a passionate advocate of the museum, fundraising came naturally to him. Leading by example, he often challenged others to match his contributions or to sell more tickets to the ice cream social then he did.  He recognized the need for community involvement and encouraged people to attend events, participate, volunteer, or serve on the board.

Gil Belles with Dennis Danowski at a 2012 museum fundraiser

Gil’s involvement in the community was key when the museum faced being closed.  Rallying local leaders to work alongside longtime members who had knowledge of the importance of the collection, he helped create a new home for the museum. In addition to helping secure the needed financial support, he also ensured the rich history of the collection and programs were not lost as the museum moved to downtown Macomb. Breathing new life into the museum, he worked to integrate best professional practices, establish a rotating exhibit program, and establish an annual membership structure to ensure ongoing funding. The result of his efforts was a new community based non-profit organization that opened its doors in 2002 and continues to serve the region.

As we grieve and miss this forward thinking advocate who played an important role in the museum’s founding and growth, we will work to continue his legacy.