Ryan McDonald

Luke’s Legacy: Remembering Mira Costa alumnus Luke Gilroy

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Luke Gilroy and his wife, Meredith Blount, share a moment on their wedding day in October 2016. Gilroy had been undergoing chemotherapy for a rare form of cancer. Photos courtesy Meredith Blount.

 

by Ryan McDonald

Luke Gilroy did not seem like the kind of person in need of drastic change. He had a rewarding job Fidelity Investments as a research analyst. What free time remained he filled with volunteering at food banks and homeless shelters, and spirited athletic pursuits, like organizing hikes and ski trips.

So it came as a surprise to his family five years ago when he told them that he was thinking about quitting his job and applying to graduate school to study public policy.

“He called me when he was thinking about going to school. His life seemed pretty perfect: he had this amazing job, a good group of friends. The reason he went back…” said Gilroy’s sister Georgia, pausing to search for words.

“He wanted to contribute,” Luke’s mother Barbara chimed in. “He didn’t do it because he had political ambitions or anything, but because he genuinely cared about the world.”

Gilroy, raised in Manhattan Beach, died at his home in San Pedro on June 24, succumbing to synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He was 33. A memorial paddle-out for him will take place Saturday, 10 a.m., at 45th Street in Manhattan Beach.

Gilroy had recently relocated to Southern California after spending much of the last 15 years in New England. He leaves behind a sprawling collection of lives touched on both coasts, friends and family who recall him as brilliant but humble, selfless but full of life.

Gilroy could surprise even those who knew him well, a tendency rooted in modesty about his considerable accomplishments, and a determination not to let them deter or intimidate others.  When he was diagnosed with cancer, this reserve emerged as an almost confounding unwillingness to let the illness define him. Friends recall long conversations on the eve of crucial medical procedures in which his condition barely came up. He met, married, and made a life with his wife, Meredith Blount, all after being diagnosed.

“All the way through, he was the embodiment of patience, gentleness and empathy. He would never have self-identified as that, but that’s who he was,” Blount said.

Running from the start

Gilroy (right) and his sister Georgia on Halloween.

Gilroy was born in Paris. His dad Tom was working as a correspondent for Reuters. His mom worked in banking. The early exposure to French evidently stayed with him. Gilroy minored in the language at college, and Tom remembers Gilroy and his younger sister Georgia watching a multi-hour debate, in French, between French presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.

From a young age, Gilroy seemed to always be running. Tom would get home from work, and endlessly chase the young Luke around, playing with a toy car down the long hallway of their Paris apartment.

“He wouldn’t even let me get my work clothes off,” Tom said.

They returned to the United States when Luke was three. They settled in Manhattan Beach, and Luke attended Grandview Elementary, Manhattan Beach Intermediate, and Mira Costa. Academic success came naturally to him. Dan Perkins met Gilroy when the two were four or five years old. Although Perkins participated in none of the activities with which Gilroy filled his schedule, the two remained close, surfing and hanging out on the weekends.

“He was a really hard working, high-achieving, Valedictorian, everything. And he was also just a very nice guy,” Perkins said.

The laps around the Paris apartment started to pay off when Gilroy joined Costa’s cross country team. He served as co-captain in his junior and senior years.

Jeff Atkinson, a cross country coach at Mira Costa, said that Gilroy defined himself through effort and commitment. A team player, Gilroy was “helpful to everyone, and never spoke down to anyone.”

Atkinson recalled that, at the start of Gilroy’s final season with the Mustangs, he was the third or fourth fastest runner on the team.  But by the end of the season, he was team’s top finisher at CIF finals.

“He was perhaps the best kid I’ve ever coached in 20 years. He was the consummate cross country runner. Every lesson I tried to communicate, he took it to heart and applied it to the rest of his life,” Atkinson said.

Gilroy set a tough act to follow for his sister Georgia, who went on to become Student of the Year and now lives in Kenya, working in international aid. The two were close, with the older brother carefully treading the line between looking out for her and being overly protective. She described him as impressively intelligent, but also relatable.

“He had an amazing ability to see other people’s perspectives. He could always calm me down. It could be frustrating, you wanted him to see what you were feeling. But talking to him put everything in place,” she said.

On campus, on the job

Gilroy, emerging from the water at his local surf spot in El Porto.

Gilroy was standing in line at the student store just before the start of his freshman year at Dartmouth, waiting to pick up his computer, when the crew coach spotted him. Though he had never rowed before, Gilroy accepted the challenge.

“Luke just decided he was going to keep trying new things,” Barbara said of crew.

Kevin Carmody, a classmate and teammate of Luke’s, said the crew team featured a mix of recruited athletes and walk-ons, who did not so much make the team as they did survive the training. By Gilroy’s senior year, he was “the obvious choice” for team captain.

“He was a clear leader. Now, there’s lots of ways to do that. Some people are good talkers, or really energetic. Luke was very understated,” Carmody said. “He was exceptionally gifted in his studies, but he never talked about them. He volunteered a bunch at a local school, but never talked about that. He became really good at crew, and people just noticed it. He probably wouldn’t have envisioned himself as captain of crew, but he led by example.”

Gilroy was one of a small number of students named to the Academic All-Ivy team. He graduated from Dartmouth magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.

Following college, Gilroy got a job as a research associate at Fidelity Investments’ office in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Rob Mandeville, who sat next to Gilroy at Fidelity, said the city, away from the hustle and bustle of traditional finance anchors like New York City, tended to attract people with a passion for the outdoors.

In winter Gilroy kept in touch with Dartmouth friends by putting together ski trips, and he led hikes up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. He also put together a team each year for “Reach the Beach,” a 200-mile relay race. The constant outings led Mandeville to see in Gilroy a passion for “bringing different groups of people together.”

Gilroy worked in Fidelity’s fixed-income research group, evaluating investments in state and local bonds and money market funds. His tenure overlapped with the 2007-08 financial crisis. During the downturn, municipalities across the country, including several in California, declared bankruptcy. Gilroy provided valuable insight during the crisis, at one point meeting with Ben Bernanke, then-Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to discuss debt in the local government sector.

“Luke was really well respected inside Fidelity. And he made a pretty good impression down in Washington D.C., too,” Mandeville said.

Following his heart

Graduate school was a common step for many of Gilroy’s co-workers at Fidelity. But most of them set their eyes on MBA programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, or the Harvard School of Business. Gilroy had something else in mind.

Eric Golden, a former roommate of Gilroy’s, who started work at Fidelity on the same day, said Gilroy was always intellectually engaged with bigger issues, like global poverty. His job at Fidelity was stimulating and rewarding, but Golden said that in their many long conversations, Gilroy often spoke of the need to serve one’s community.

“We were in our late 20s, wondering whether we should we be doing this, or some other job. Luke loved the intellectual challenge of our job, but for him it was always going to be about something bigger. A lot of people go into finance pursuing wealth or power. It was really never about that for him,” Golden said.

Gilroy enrolled at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, studying public policy, in fall 2013. Charlie Warren, a classmate of Gilroy’s at the Kennedy School, said that Gilroy was several years older than most of his peers, and that his work experience at Fidelity made him stand out.

“Even though he was someone who had much more professional experience, he didn’t use that as a way to thumb his nose at people. He didn’t say, ‘I know much more, I’m so much wiser.’ He was accommodating, and a very, very good listener,” Warren said.

School led to a trip to India to study micro-finance, where Gilroy contracted malaria. The symptoms, which include rapid changes in body temperature, recurred during a particularly brutal New England winter, and he visited a Boston-area hospital. By April 2014, a battery of tests led to the diagnosis of synovial sarcoma.

News of the illness led to an outpouring of support from his former employer. Co-workers raised money and sent him meals. Fidelity set up a ride-hailing account for him to get to and from appointments, and allowed him to continue doing research on a contractual basis, something other employees said was rarely done.

Back at school, those who knew about the illness said Gilroy refused to let it hold him back.

“He was a very tough guy, and adamant that this would not become the focal point of any relationship or event. He literally finished the degree on chemotherapy. He did his whole thesis, which you don’t have to do, and he was on an IV drip of chemo,” Warren said.

Wedding bells

Meredith Blount recalls her and Gilroy’s first date with the pained precision of someone who marks off days by chiseling them in stone—less to indicate that they have passed than to make sure they are not forgotten.

“It was an amazingly beautiful 20 months, 24 days,” Blount said.

The two met via Hinge, a dating app. Blount was living in South Boston, Gilroy in Cambridge. Hinge features links to people’s Facebook profiles, and Blount did a bit of snooping before the encounter. She saw Gilroy’s Dartmouth degree, crew captaincy, and career in finance, and prepared herself for an “awful” date with a walking stereotype.

What she found instead was a deep and instantaneous connection.

“I got there, and I immediately recognized him. Not from his photo, but it was like I already knew him. It was just a very surreal moment,” Blount said.

She had had a rough day at work, and was having a drink to unwind. When she saw Gilroy order a club soda, she asked him if he drank. In typical Gilroy fashion, he had buried the lead.

“He said, ‘I wasn’t planning on bringing it up, but I just started chemotherapy, and I don’t really feel like it.’ And then we talked for hours about everything but that,” Blount recalled. The conversation would have continued for longer, but Gilroy had to get back and work on a paper for grad school.

They went out again and again and became inseparable. The shock of Gilroy’s illness was deadened somewhat by how active Gilroy remained despite the treatment. Along with the chemotherapy, he had already undergone a pneumonectomy, a surgical procedure to remove part of his lungs. His sister Georgia recalled a visit Gilroy made to London after the surgery, where “he still kicked my butt on a run.”

Convinced that they were meant to be together, Blount and Gilroy planned a giant wedding. The October 2016 wedding featured a live band, photo booth with funny hats and disguises, and guests from the different parts of each of their lives. In a sign of the optimism that characterized the event, guests’ tables were decorated with maps of places that Gilroy and Blount wanted to visit.

Carmody, Gilroy’s Dartmouth crewmate, officiated at the ceremony, and described it as “one of the most enjoyable weddings I’ve ever been to.”

“Luke just made a choice that he was going to live life to the fullest. He loved Meredith dearly. He admired her, he respected her. In some ways I think he still does. It was important to him that they have an opportunity to publicly celebrate their love,” Carmody said.

Though the celebration had been planned to the minute, Gilroy managed to pull out a surprise. Without telling Blount, he had the wedding planner set aside 10 minutes immediately following the ceremony for them to be alone, together. The shock of the quiet time, Blount said, made the whole day feel like an oasis from the swirl of doubts and worries they faced in the rest of their lives.

“Sometimes it feels like our paths crossed when they did so I could help him through this,” Blount said. “Obviously, if I had a choice, I would choose this, to have done this, every time.”

Living up to the legacy

Gilroy during a backpacking trip with friends in the Grand Canyon in 2010. He and Blount returned to the area when driving across country last fall.

Blount and Gilroy relocated to Southern California shortly after weddig, driving across country after the November election. Though he was disappointed with the election of President Donald Trump, Blount recalled that when moving through states that went for Trump, Gilroy was constantly trying to understand local people’s points of view, empathizing and wondering how he could work to undo the forces dividing the country.

“Even up to the end, he was still thinking about those things. He was still hopeful that we could figure it out and that we could make a difference,” she said.

Despite Gilroy’s continued optimism and willingness to fight the cancer, his condition continued to deteriorate. He died surrounded by Tom, Barbara and Georgia, in Blount’s arms, with their dog Gaia looking on.

Blount is starting a nonprofit organization called The Luke Legacy, focused on getting people engaged in volunteer work in their local community. It is a goal she hopes will both honor Gilroy’s memory, and improve the world in ways he was denied the chance to do.

“The hardest thing, one of the hardest things for all of us…” Golden said, trailing off. “Luke is the kind of person who could have changed the world. All of us feel an immense responsibility to live up to what Luke was. Being more like Luke is a goal everyone should have.”

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