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Doctor's goal: Restore sight, build faith

James P. Gills - businessman, athlete and benefactor - says everything he does is based on his faith.

By TERRY JONES

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2001


TARPON SPRINGS -- Wanting to spend time trick waterskiing was the main attraction luring Dr. James P. Gills to the north Pinellas County area. In June 1968, he left his faculty position at the medical college of Duke University and moved to Clearwater.

Now 66, the successful doctor, businessman, Methodist lay minister, athlete and family man hasn't slowed down any.

Although he built a successful ophthalmology practice in Clearwater, he ultimately moved everything to Tarpon Springs and now has offices in five counties. Through the James P. Gills Foundation, he helps restore sight and faith to people in Third World countries.

He is the founder and director of St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute and owns other business and professional enterprises. More than 400 people are on his payroll.

As his medical practice, business and real estate ventures continue to grow, he works through his faith, medical skills and business knowledge to give millions of dollars to more than 50 ministries around the world.

"Giving is easy; living is often the hard part," Gills said. "Everything I do is based on my faith in the Lord. When very young, my dad told me I would never really learn to depend upon the Lord, until I had nothing or no one else to depend upon. I have been there and really understand, but some people, especially in Third World countries, stay there, and we help."

Both personal and spiritual health are important to him. Of the 20 books he has written, all are either about improved medical techniques he has helped discover or encouragement for peace of mind and body, living his Christian faith.

In college, he was always involved in competitive athletics, and although he no longer competes, he exercises.

"Eating properly and exercising are two ways to maintain proper health, so I continue to watch my diet and exercise," he said.

Over 20 years, he successfully completed more than 50 marathons, including 18 Boston Marathons, five Hawaii Ironman Triathlons, six double iron triathlons and five 200-mile races.

He became so enamored by the discipline and commitment required of serious endurance athletes that he acquired the World Triathlon Corp. in 1991. The WTC oversees many of the most grueling and prestigious triathlons in the world, including the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championships.

"Everything I do, I want to help draw myself and others closer to the Lord," he said. "Family, athletics, profession, business and writing must be an extention of my relationship with the Lord. My faith doesn't interfere with my lifestyle and profession, it enhances it."

Professional colleagues and civic organizations have given him numerous awards.

In 1994, he was named to Duke University Medical Center's Board of Visitors and to the advisory board of Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute. In 1996, he was honored with the innovator's award by the American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery.

He was also given the Florida Enterprise Award by the Merchants Association of Florida and was named Humanitarian of the Year by the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center.

He was named Entrepreneur of the Year for the state of Florida in 1990, inducted into the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame in 1993 and received the Tampa Bay Ethics Award from the University of Tampa in 1995. Last year, the Florida Council on Economic Education named him Free Enterpriser of the Year.

Gills and his wife have donated more than a hundred acres of land and several million dollars to build family YMCAs in Hernando and Pasco counties and the James and Heather Gills Family YMCA in St. Petersburg. They have contributed to many other outdoor community parks and nature classrooms.

Currently, Gills is working in cooperation with Christian Blind Missions International. Starting with a $2-million personal contribution, he hopes to raise $28-million to restore sight to 1-million people in Third World countries.

"We are not talking about people with weak eyes or cataracts. This is 1-million people who have to be led around by someone," he said. "The organization already has 1,000 clinics around the world. Can you imagine the impact for the Lord when a million blind people can see? This is really exciting."

Gills no longer takes time to do the trick waterskiing he moved to the bay area to do, but he does continue to exercise. He is happy blending his faith and his profession.

"I am not even thinking of retirement," he said. "I love my profession, and I love the Lord, and I hope to keep caring for and helping people for a long time."

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