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Around the world in a single lifetime

There are a few places left in the world that Bill Gillam hasn’t seen, but chances are, he’ll get there someday.

Gillam, who grew up in Bonne Terre, thought a trip to Arkansas of southern Missouri to fish was a big adventure. He never dreamed he would become a world traveler who has visited all 50 states and 87 other countries (including East Germany before East and West were united) and independent territories. He and his wife, Mary, took a 27-day, 9-country trip around the world in the winter of 2007 and traveled more than 50,000 miles from October 2007 to October 2008.

So far this year, the Wildwood, Mo., couple has spent time in Puerto Vallerta in Mexico in February and in Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla., in March. They plan to head to Branson in April, Las Vegas in May, Panama and Costa Rica in June and Mexico in November. The visit to Costa Rica will be the 88th country Gillam has visited.

Gillam said much of the couple’s travel has been relatively inexpensive thanks to military transports and housing, as well as frequent flyer tickets. Gillam spends his time researching the Internet before each trip to find the lowest prices and plan what sites he and Mary will see.

“I go to Google and get the best priced hotel in the city, then I go directly to their site,” he explained. “I spend a lot of time on the Internet, but I get great prices!”

The couple’s trips focus on history and culture. Trips to the jungle or wilderness adventures have no appeal for the 71-year-old retired Army Lt. Colonel. His favorite trips include visiting centuries old buildings and culture in countries such as Italy, Israel, and Egypt.

Gillam kept friends informed through an Internet blog.

In his travels, Gillam has seen about 150 Broadway shows and met celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Don Merideth and Lola Falana, who gave him a kiss.

Early trips with their four children were by car. Gillam and his family have seen most of the tourist attractions in this country, including the grand Canyon, Alamo, Golden Great Bridge, Statue of Liberty, Gettysburg’s Civil War battlefield, Arizona Battleship Memorial, Philadelphia’s Constitution Square, St. Louis Arch, Mount Rushmore, Concord Bridge and the homes of several U.S. presidents.

Keys to successful and cost-efficient traveling include being thrifty and careful planning,” Gillam said. Sometimes, it even includes a little manipulation.

“If you have kids, encourage them to live in Florida or California so you can visit,” he joked.

Parkland youth

Gillam graduated from Bonne Terre High School in 1955.

“Several high school teachers, basketball coach Chuck Smith, and Wayne Woods and Howard Terry in Bonne Terre  were very important in my life as role models and through the examples they exhibited in leadership, honesty, integrity and moral values,” Gillam recalled. “They were great leaders and were great examples to emulate.”

Gillam went to West Missouri State College (now Southeast Missouri State University), where he joined the Army ROTC. His friends were being drafted or had joined the Air Force, and Gillam wanted to make sure that if he went into the military, he would not do so as a private.

He joined the Army as a lieutenant after marrying Mary, who was from Monett, Mo. He trained in Georgia, Kentucky, and Alabama before being sent to Panama in 1964. That is where his interest in traveling was sparked. During his two-year stint in Panama, he visited Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

“The trip was almost free and really great!” Gillam recalled. “The Air Force was returning people to U.S. embassies and I went along for the ride. I had a friend in the Air Force who helped me plan the trip.”

Gillam spent time in Florida and Korea before being sent to An Khe, Vietnam, where he served as a brigade supply officer in the 4th Infantry Division that supplied 450 helicopters. He earned four Bronze Stars and three Air Medals for missions in Vietnam and Cambodia.

While in Vietnam, Gillam met Jim Berry of Bonne Terre, who was serving as a 1st Lieutenant in Qui Nhon with the Transportation Corps at a major port terminal that supplied Gillam’s unit.

“We both received letters from our parents telling us their friends had a son in Vietnam,” Gillam recalled. “We had the addresses and got in contact with each other. I was in Qui Nhon on a regular basis so we saw each other numerous times. I even went on a patrol boat mission one day with Jim. He was checking Vietnamese boats passing through the area and was looking for Viet Cong, ammunition and excess food.”

Around the World

Gillam and his wife have traveled to Israel twice, cruised down the Nile River and visited the pyramids, and the Sphinx. They have seen Buckingham Palace, Berlin Wall, Roman Coliseum and the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

Many sites have been religious in nature: The Virgin Mary’s home in Ephesus, Turkey; St. Peters Square in Rome; the Blue Mosque in Istanbul; the Dome of the Rock at Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

They have been behind the former “Iron Curtain” and traveled inside the Kremlin Wall, Lenin’s Tomb, and the Czars’ home in St. Petersburg.

The most extensive trip thus far was in January 2007. The couple headed around the world, stopping at 11 countries and covering 24,879 miles. They began in Dallas, Texas, then went to Spain. Next on the itinerary was London.

“We visited London on a bus/underground pass. Took a ride on the London Eye — a very big Ferris wheel that takes 30 minutes to rotate and viewed 55 sites,” Gillam wrote in his blog.

From London, the couple traveled to India, where they visited the Taj Mahal and rode an elaborately decorated elephant in Jaipur, which is called the pink city after the oft-used color for its buildings.

The tour moved to Thailand, Singapore, Manila and the Philippines before heading to the last stop, Hong Kong. There, they saw a giant Buddha statue on Lantau Island. They also visited a jade market and a bird market.

Later that year, the couple took a cruise to Greece, Turkey, England and France. The trip was Mary’s birthday present.

“Lots of goodies to eat and drink!” Gillam wrote in his blog. “Go to the Acropolis, see the Parthenon and the great view of the city from there…The Parliament and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are great, as is the market.”

Expenses and memories

On many trips, the Gillams rode on military transports to save money on airfare, and stayed on military bases to avoid hotel expenses.

Gillam’s credit card earns frequent flyer miles, and many of their more recent trips were paid for by redeeming those points.

“In the long run we spend about $150 day or less on our trips,” he estimated.

While in Puerto Vallarta this year, Gillam e-mailed a reporter, “At 3 different hotels due to frequent flier tickets.  Just used my last 3 tickets. 35,000 miles for each and didn’t cost a penny extra.  Not even the taxes or airport fees.”

The Gillams rarely head anywhere without bringing home a souvenir to remind them of their travels. Their home resembles a miniature international market place.

Furnishings in one room include gold Italian stacking tables and Guatemalan midwife chairs. On display is a French farmer’s clock bought in  Germany. One table top feature miniature pyramids and Pharaoh statues from Egypt, while Alaskan and Mexican Nativity scenes decorate another table nearby.

One wall displays the couple’s collection of Hummel plates, some bought in Germany, the rest purchased elsewhere. The collection includes a plate for each year spanning from 1971 to 1995. The couple’s love of the collectibles is further evidenced by 65 figurines that fill a display case.

Each room is filled with memorabilia from their many trips. Brass angels from Istanbul wait to hold candles in the entryway, a German grandfather clock ticks away the time downstairs and a tea set purchased at the foot of the Acropolis sits delicately out of harm’s way in another room.

There is a clock that used to hang on a wall in a German castle, glass  grapes made in Buenos Aires, and hundreds of scenic postcards spread out for visitors to see.

The couple’s children and grandchildren also have caught the traveling bug.

Son Jim and family were scheduled for a March trip to Australia to tour cities and see the Great Barrier Reef. The couple is sending one granddaughter and her college roommate on a trip to Rome for 4 days, followed by a 13-day cruise to Naples, Pompeii, Athens, Rhodes, Ephesus, Mykanos, Edfu, Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt. The trip wraps up with a four-day stay in London.

The young women will use frequent flier miles to and from Europe given to them by one of Gillam’s sons, which cuts expenses quite a bit.

For potential travelers who worry about traveling to foreign countries, it is not necessary to worry about going to countries where English is not the primary language.

“If you go on any tourist attraction, there’s always someone who speaks English,” Gillam said. We’ve never had a problem.”

As long as he is physically able to travel, Gillam intends to continue to learn about other countries first hand.

“I wouldn’t mind going to Sofia, Bulgaria,” he said. “Or to Bucharest, Romania.”

Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at


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