Joan Suzanne Heckler Gillings, 75, longtime philanthropist and former BOV chair at UNCW

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Joan Suzanne Heckler Gillings, 75, transitioned peacefully Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in the loving presence of her three children, John, Paul and Susan. While her failing heart took her from this life, her generous and loving heart has left a guiding light for anyone lucky enough to cross her path.

Born April 13, 1945, in Philadelphia, Joan moved to North Carolina in 1969. She fell in love with the town of Chapel Hill and made it her forever home. Her dedication to helping others started with a successful career in real estate, and later turned towards a role focused on service and philanthropy.

She was spunky and tenacious, and fought tirelessly for what she thought was right. Joan had a wonderful spirit and a contagious and charismatic energy; she made an impactful connection with every single person she met. Ever the presence, and always dressed to the nines, she could absolutely fill a room with her personality. She was fiercely loyal, a Momma G. to many, and a friend to all.

Joan enjoyed spending her spare time cheering on and “coaching” her beloved Tar Heels, her fiery passion the same, whether it be from the bleachers or her living room. She loved golfing, sport fishing, bike riding, boating and snorkeling whenever possible, for as long as her health allowed. One of her greatest joys was gathering and traveling with her family, whom she adored. She also loved the beach, spending time with family and friends at her Wrightsville Beach home, cooking, hosting, and entertaining as only she could. Joan spent her final weeks in the comfort of her home at the beach, where she ultimately had settled, surrounded by the company and laughter of loved ones.

Joan is survived by her three children, John Casey, Paul Casey, and Susan Gross; daughter-in-law, Sarah Casey; son-in-law, Dustin Gross; seven grandchildren, Erin Gwyn (Evan), Riley, Tripp and Reese Casey, Owen, Emma and Lily Gross; and two great-grandchildren, Rory and Wyatt Gwyn, all residing in North Carolina.

Joan was an admirer of life’s beauty in all forms, and never missed an opportunity to experience and appreciate that which took her breath away. Be it a stirring performance at Playmakers theater, the summer sun’s heat on a Carolina shore, the joy of cradling a newborn grandchild or an island sunset’s vibrant glow, she was a collector of moments that touched her soul. Frequently confronting a lifelong fear of heights and small planes, Joan was also an adventure-seeker! Her travels were constant and took her from the Great Wall of China to the top of Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii; from the streets of Bangkok, New York and London, to Caribbean islands and even to the Galapagos Islands in 2019.

A Tar Heel through and through, Joan’s legacy at Carolina will continue through her longstanding philanthropic support of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and Carolina Performing Arts, especially her contribution to The Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Arts. Her presence will also be missed within the Seahawk community at UNC Wilmington, where she previously served as chair of the board of visitors and was a regular attendee of team sporting events on the Wilmington campus.

A lifelong advocate for the arts and sciences, Joan was also unwavering in her ambitions for equality and opportunity for all. She made voluntary and advisory contributions to the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, UNC Children’s Hospital, North Carolina Museum of Art, North Carolina Botanical Garden, Kenan Institute Asia, Opera House Theater Company in Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Museum and offered ongoing support to numerous local and international initiatives with focuses on wellness, housing, literacy and youth development programs.

“Can’t solve all the world’s problems,” Joan once said, “But we can try.” In her memory, we intend to try.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that the legacy of altruism that Joan made her life’s work be honored by making a charitable contribution in her name to an organization of your choosing.

The family will hold a private service in the coming days. A celebration of life will take place when we can all gather safely in her memory.

Share online condolences with the family at Andrews Mortuary & Crematory.

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