In a word, Gary Wilson was homeless. The Denver Sheriff only recently allowed himself to utter that distinction aloud when contemplating his journey to the now.
But years earlier, well before he was starched and serious, with gun, badge and iron-on patch identifying his current station in life, he was living in his car and accepting meals from friends.
So, while Wilson technically wasn’t exactly on the street, it was exactly one step down. Open the door of the passenger side of his old Chevrolet Chevette. Put shoe on pavement.
It was the late 1980s. Wilson had spent most of his freshman year at Dana College in Blair, Neb., on a basketball scholarship, with additional grants and financial aid masking his family’s inability to afford the more than $15,000 annual costs to matriculate. Yet it quickly became clear exactly where Wilson stood from a fiscal perspective.
“I clearly recall that next year getting called into the finance office and a very nice lady was there, who said, ‘You don’t have enough money to go to school. And we’re going to need $3,000 to continue,’” said Wilson, who will recount much of his background as a keynote speaker May 10 at Community College of Aurora’s commencement ceremony. “What I didn’t know was the college had raised its tuition, I believe, close to 10-15 percent, and that kind of put me in a bad situation.”
He knew with conviction that funding wasn’t going to come from relatives.
His father, Gardine, was the family breadwinner and had passed away when Gary was 14, leaving him and his three siblings under the care of his essentially stay-at-home mother, Sally, in Omaha. She occasionally worked odd jobs as a house cleaner but was in no position to cover Gary’s increased college expenses.
The support Wilson’s mother was best at providing was encouragement, and it was out of that dynamic she was promised in return a diploma by Gary. The financial burden now placed in the latter’s lap certainly wouldn’t help him in fulfilling that promise.
He got creative in the attempt at follow through. That’s clear. In order to remain at Dana, Wilson cancelled out his increased cost of living by ditching other necessities. His meal plan, gone. His dormitory, gone. Those sacrifices left him in that old Chevette, wondering where he’d eat next.
He was fortunate perhaps only that he was a six-foot guard and not a center on the basketball team. Full-sized in a compact wouldn’t do.
That car wasn’t always the bedroom, though packed with all of his clothes, it had that look and feel.
Wilson would occasionally grab a couch at a friend’s house to crash. His buddies in the know would provide food to keep the situation from spiraling downward. This hit-or-miss arrangement lasted more than a semester his sophomore year.
“As weird as it sounds, I still felt that I had a lot of support around me,” Wilson explained. “I think that’s how I was able to make it through. I never sunk to the point where I was totally depressed or thinking crazy thoughts. But I guess looking back on it, it was a very weird scenario. I don’t know if I gave it as much thought then as I do now. I don’t even think I even classified it the way that I do now: that I was homeless. At the same time, I got to the point where I remember I started thinking, ‘This just didn’t make sense.’”
So, Wilson did what he had to do and left Dana College. His next move would be Denver, where his brother, Gardine II, was working in the telecommunications business.
“He was happy to have me come out,” Wilson recalled. “But I remember the disappointment in my mom’s voice when I told her I was dropping out of school. Her goal has always been to get her kids through college, and I remember making that promise to her that I was going to finish. I knew this isn’t the path we talked about, but I was going to finish.”
But where to start? Wilson needed money and stability more than classrooms and homework. So for his first couple of years in Colorado he supported himself at one of the most ironic jobs possible: Unipac, a student-loan servicing company. “I remember seeing mine on the computer,” he said with a laugh.
Wilson’s future mother-in-law at the time was a sheriff, and she began to get in his ear about the law-enforcement profession. After a while, it started to resonate. He joined the Denver Sheriff’s Department in 1992 and worked mainly at the county jail. He got married a year later, which was followed by the couple’s first child. Everything was seemingly aligned.
College was well in the rear-view mirror by that time. Yet, having not finished continued to be something reflected upon often. But then a sign appeared, influencing his future direction.
An actual sign.
Wilson’s job in law enforcement often had him driving past CCA’s old location off Sixth Street. He’d drive by and see the college’s name all the time. It prompted him one day to drop by for a conversation with advisors about his options and the college’s class offerings.
“I picked up the curriculum. I think that’s what really got me,” said Wilson, who enrolled at CCA in ’95. “I remember seeing this booklet and seeing the dates and time frames in which classes were offered, and the kinds of classes they had, and I got very interested. It was very fitting for my schedule. It was something I could do while I was still a father, husband and maintaining a full-time job.”
That thought process was about to be kid tested, mother approved.
Wilson was about 26 at the time and there were numerous classmates right around his age. His initial inkling was that he would pursue a degree affiliated with computers. But his accumulation of credits became more an exploration of what he enjoyed, “with no clear path to success completely drawn out”. He eventually started moving towards management and finance, with the aid of CCA faculty and staff.
And, somewhere along the line, Wilson said he found himself.
His previous college experience – Chevette excluded – featured large classes where getting to faculty for counsel was difficult. At CCA, there was “very close and personal relationships with professors,” he said. That put him on the path to an associate of arts to degree, which he earned in ‘96.
“CCA really helped me to understand what sets of skills were best applied to different fields, and I actually was born through CCA in a lot of ways,” Wilson said.
So much so, that he added that, out of all of his degrees, the one from CCA stands out – even after earning his bachelor’s of science from Columbia College (‘99) and a masters from Webster University (2004) in Denver, along with numerous specialized training certifications.
Even more rewarding: calling his mother to tell her about fulfilling his academic promise after his inauspicious start to college life in Nebraska.
“That probably was one of my prouder moments – hearing the laughter in her voice and telling me how proud she was of me at the time.”
As Wilson prepared to send off CCA’s 2013-14 graduates with his inspirational story, he does so knowing that the men and women who will cross the stage have endured hardships he can understand from a professional perspective and empathize with from personal experience.
“I think it’s important to get a shovel in the ground. You’ve got to start digging somewhere, and Community College of Aurora is a great place to do that – and don’t stop digging until you hit gold,” he said of his anticipated, overarching message to the cap-and-gown crowd May 10 at the University of Denver’s Ritchie Center.
“I think getting the shovel in the ground at CCA is kind of the reason I’m where I am today.”