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Beloved ex-coach dies two days after receiving new Rainelle home

Register-Herald photo by Rick Barbero Russell Gilkeson, left, waved to the Greenbrier West football team, cheerleaders, band and color guard as they march up Ohio Ave in Rainelle in front of his new home Friday, the first of the Rebuilding Rainelle homes to be finished. Sunday, just two days later, Gilkeson passed away. Watching with him Friday were his wife Rebecca Gilkeson and Rainelle mayor Andy Pendleton.
Register-Herald photo by Rick Barbero
Russell Gilkeson, left, waved to the Greenbrier West football team, cheerleaders, band and color guard as they march up Ohio Ave in Rainelle in front of his new home Friday, the first of the Rebuilding Rainelle homes to be finished. Sunday, just two days later, Gilkeson passed away. Watching with him Friday were his wife Rebecca Gilkeson and Rainelle mayor Andy Pendleton.

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Decimated by a summer flood, the close-knit community of Rainelle found reason to celebrate Friday morning, as more than 100 people gathered at the newly constructed home of Russ and Becky Gilkeson for a dedication ceremony.

But today, the town is grief-stricken once more, mourning the loss of “Coach G” — Russ Gilkeson — who died Sunday, only two days after basking in the outpouring of affection that surrounded him and his wife at their Ohio Avenue home.

“You couldn’t ask for any better person,” Mayor Andrea “Andy” Pendleton said Monday. “It’s hard to imagine what all he’s done for people, but everybody will be talking about him in the days to come.”

 The primary organizer of Friday’s fete, Pendleton said it now appears that the day may be seen as a fitting memorial to the man, especially with all of the Greenbrier West High School students who assembled at the event. Among those who shouted in unison, “We love you,” to long-time coach and athletic trainer Gilkeson and his wife during the ceremony were members of West’s volleyball and football teams, the cheer squad and band.

“He was so surprised,” Pendleton said. “As they all came marching around the corner, he looked and looked, and he just couldn’t believe it.”

She noted that both of the Gilkesons were “so appreciative” of the community’s support in the months following the June 23 flood that rendered their former home uninhabitable. The new house was built by volunteers with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) as part of the “Rebuilding Rainelle” endeavor.

“One of the reasons we chose Russ and Becky to build the first Rainelle home for was because they are so well-loved in the community,” said Walter Crouch, president and CEO of ASP. “They agreed to open their house up as a model home — an example of what other people could expect us to build for them. They’re just great folks.”

Having returned to his home in Tennessee following Friday’s ceremony, Crouch said he learned of Russ’ death in a Sunday night call from one of the Gilkesons’ daughters.

“It’s still just such a shock,” Crouch said Monday. “ASP is a relationship ministry, with a little bit of construction on the side. We don’t have clients; we have friends. Russ was a friend.”

Although he hadn’t known the man very long, Crouch noted, “Russ loved Rainelle. He said that after the flood, he never considered moving away. He was a very special person.”

 Crouch’s thoughts also turned to the significance of Friday’s celebration, in light of the loss that would come only two days later.

“Not many people get to know how much the community cares about them,” he said. “I know Russ was living in joy the last few days of his life. Friday was celebrating more than a new home; it was celebrating Russ and Becky. We can take solace in that.”

Speaking as a person of faith, Crouch added, “We built him a home. But God has given him a mansion.”

At this point, Crouch said, he and others in the ASP ministry are mulling ways to honor Gilkeson and “use his love of community to inspire people to keep working and rebuilding their town.” He pledged, “We will help Becky in any way we can to ease her burden.”

— Email: [email protected]register-herald.com

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