“In Honor of Uncle George”

George E. Gilson ’42
George E. Gilson ’42

John Hailer P21

John Hailer
Established the George E. Gilson ’42 Scholarship
Boston, MA

Though John Hailer P21 never attended Holy Cross, his blood still tends to run purple. His son, Blake, graduated from the College in 2021 and is now the Director of Operations for the Men’s Hockey Team. His uncle, Irving Gilson, M.D., graduated in 1952. But perhaps Hailer can best trace his love for the College directly to his uncle, George Gilson ’42. Gilson's is a classic Crusader story — a tale passed on by John’s mother, Mary Gilson Hailer. And lovingly recorded in a treasured family scrapbook kept by John’s aunt, Leonora Gilson Dursin.


“My Uncle George arrived at Holy Cross in the autumn of 1938,” says John, “and over the next four years, he became something of a legend.”

The family scrapbook chronicling Uncle George’s career as a track star on Mount St. James is testament to Gilson’s prowess and popularity. In 1962, many years after Gilson’s tragic death, when longtime and celebrated coach Bart Sullivan was asked to name the greatest runners in the College’s history, he listed Andy Kelly, Bill Merritt, Jay Bowers and George Gilson as the all-time great Holy Cross track and field stars.  

Gilson came to Holy Cross by way of La Salle Academy in Providence, where he was captain of the track team. Once a Crusader and under the tutelage of Sullivan, he distinguished himself in his very first year as a hurdler and broad jumper.

“His picture was on the front page of The Providence Journal,” says John. “Big things were predicted for Uncle George right away. And he delivered. He had the finest first-year record in Holy Cross track history.”

In 1941, Gilson was selected for the All-American All-Catholic Track Team, for both the 120-yard high hurdles competition and the 220-yard low-hurdles contest. A year later, Gilson stunned the crowd at Madison Square Garden when he defeated the top-ranked runner from Detroit in the New York A.C. Track and Field Games. In his senior year, Gilson was undefeated in his specialties and was awarded the annual Holy Cross Track Trophy. Named the National Intercollegiate Hurdles Champion for 1942, newspapers praised him as “perhaps the best hurdler ever to represent Holy Cross” and “one of the titans of New England track history.”

Off the field, Gilson’s star shined bright as well. In the summer between his junior and senior years, Gilson made headlines when he dove into the surf at Matunuck and attempted to rescue two passengers from a small plane that had crashed near Narragansett Pier. For his bravery and quick thinking, he received a commendation from the Rhode Island Department of Public Health.

“Uncle George was expected to have an amazing future ahead of him,” says John. “But it just wasn’t meant to be.”

After graduation, Gilson was commissioned in the Marine Corps and assigned to combat duty. Promoted to 1st Lieutenant, he was sent to the South Pacific during WWII. In February 1944, Gilson volunteered for a dangerous assignment, driving to a coastal base for much-needed supplies. Navigating a mountain path made of dirt in the dead of night, Gilson could not see a turn in the road and crashed into a tree. He died in a field hospital on Feb. 14, 1944.

At the time of Gilson’s death, Captain Robert Roque, USMC, stated that Lt. Gilson was “a fine officer in every respect. We who worked, lived and fought by his side share your sorrow. As long as this battalion exists, he will always be in our prayers.”

“He was a wonderful man,” sums up John. “He gave his life for his country. He was an athletic legend of Rhode Island and Holy Cross. I want people to remember him. I thought one of the best ways to ensure that happened was to establish a scholarship in his name.”

And so, John has created the George E. Gilson ’42 Scholarship, a fitting tribute to a Holy Cross sports legend and war hero. 

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