Man of many words hopes for help from community he served

Street Stories

NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — The wait has been a seven-year rollercoaster ride with scattered ups and downs and sudden turns for Jim Gillis, who’s been digging up Aquidneck Island news for decades.

Gillis started at the Newport Daily News in 1980, spearheading a variety of beats ranging from education to crime.

“I’ve had a blast,” Gillis said. “You start out with something and expose a topic and then see some changes that benefit people.”

His final assignment was covering arts and entertainment.

But even after he retired, Gillis still continued as the brains and heart behind his long-running column, Spare Change, often written on a pad from the comfort of his recliner.

“Finding people off the beaten path [who] needed help or had stories to tell,” Gillis said. “I liked telling stories and I liked getting to know people, and I was always curious about a lot of different things.”

Among his fans was his future mother-in-law, who started clipping columns long before Gillis and Julie Bisbano were married on the beach.

“She wasn’t saving them before we ever met but she started saving them when we started dating,” Bisbano said with a laugh. “Because she liked him before we ever met.”

“Obviously,” Gillis said when asked if the power of the press was a factor in the courtship. “It can change your life.”

A difficult change in their lives hit hard about a decade ago when a bladder infection caused problems with Gillis’s kidneys.

By 2012, he was at the bottom of the local kidney donor list.

Learn More: RI Hospital Organ Donor Guide »

Now, a vital part of his wait are daily half-hour workouts on the treadmill that would’ve been just a stroll back in the day.

“I was a long-distance cyclist in the ’90s,” Gillis said. “I rode in three Boston to New York AIDS rides to raise money.”

“I thought getting a kidney would be a lot easier than it has been,” Gillis added.

He’s been close more than once.

At one point, about five years ago, a friend turned out to be a match and the operation was booked.

“[Then we found out] she had first stage colon cancer,” Gillis said. “She found out from a colonoscopy which was the last test she had to take [before the transplant].”

Her life was saved and Jim is still friends with her.

But the search and the wait continues for Jim and Julie.

“I’ve never felt it won’t happen but there’ve been times it’s been tough,” Gillis said. “And you get kind of down, especially when you get that close.”

He was at the top of the transplant list in January but then came another dip in that rollercoaster when health issues temporarily knocked Gillis off track.

Still, the bag for the hospital remains packed, hanging on a hook behind the recliner.

“Seven years we’ve had bags packed,” Bisbano said. “I freshen everything up from time to time.”

Community support helps keep them going.

“I say not a week goes by where two or three people don’t stop me on the street to ask me how I feel,” Gillis said. “I try not to complain about my situation.”

Anyone interested in getting tested as a possible donor for Gillis can contact Sarah Gibb at the Rhode Island Hospital Transplant Center.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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