The Ceramics and Creativity professor says, “see ya!”
Gary Wilson, who has the second longest tenure at Monroe County Community College, is retiring at the end of the semester.
“It’s been a great 45 years. I’ve loved teaching here,” Wilson said.
Described by students as inspirational, one-of-a-kind, and caring, his colleagues mirror these sentiments, calling him a friend, a vital part of the college, and hard to replace.
Wilson, who started teaching at MCCC in 1971, said he never planned to teach in the first place.
“I wanted to be a street artist, doing street fairs,” he said.
“I was so green behind the ears it was crazy.”
When Wilson was in college, he wanted to be a painter.
“After a lot of soul searching in college, I realized I just didn’t have anything to say,” he said.
“I ended up taking a ceramics coarse and fell in love with it. I didn’t need to ‘say’ anything.”
With a new passion under his belt, other pieces to his life’s puzzle fell into place.
“I was contacted by Monroe through Michigan State University, where I was finishing my degree,” he said.
Within the year, he was a professor at MCCC.
Professor Ted Vasser, who had been hired two years prior, played a part in Wilson joining the college.
“I saw his work, I liked his work, and he’s been a great colleague ever since,” Vasser said.
Vasser spoke fondly of his time working with Wilson.
“I take care of a lot of technical stuff, like art techniques, and he [Wilson] takes care of the content, like art history,” Vasser said.
”In all that time, we’ve gotten along just fine. I’m going to miss him,” he said.
“A lot of time artists are on ego trips, but not him.”
It is easy to imagine such a long career as the defining characteristic of a person’s life.
Wilson, however, says his faith in Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of who he is.
“I’m a devout Christian. I love God, and I try to have that reflect in my everyday life,” Wilson said.
His devotion to Christ can be seen reflected in his art. Many of his pieces are based on biblical stories.
Vasser said Wilson has had a tremendous impact on the college over his time here.
“As far as the students, students come back all the time to talk to him,” he said.
“He really connects with the students. On an artistic level, on a spiritual level, on an emotional level. I’ve seen students come in, crying. They’ve got troubles, and he settles them down. He seems like he can just handle it. He’s like a father, or a grandfather, to a lot of students.”
Vasser said he will be hard to replace.
“It’s going to be hard to find someone to come in and be able to teach ceramics, know a lot about ceramics, and know the art history and creativity aspects too,” he said.
Wilson, in conjunction with Vasser, created the art program offered by MCCC, and also built the art collection housed on campus.
“I’m very proud of the art collection here,” Wilson said.
“Ted and I built it together during our careers. It’s one of, if not the best, college art collection in the state.”
Work done by Wilson and Vasser can be seen as part of the collection all over campus.
When not teaching, building art collections, or attending church, Wilson and Vasser also share a friendship outside of work. They have often travelled together on camping and fishing trips.
“Gary and I are bass fisherman,” Vasser said.
“After he retires, I might head down to South Carolina and do some fishing with him. I’m sure we’ll stay in touch.”
On one such trip, Vasser recalls an unexpected event.
“One trip, he [Wilson] had his wife and his two kids, and the trailer we were towing flipped over. The kids were yelling ‘there’s sparks, there’s sparks!’ One of the welds broke. We had to spend all night in a hotel. Luckily we had things packed well enough that nothing really broke.”
Not only his colleagues, but the students who have taken his classes, also think he will be hard to replace.
Kellyann Navarre said she took his Exploring Creativity class.
“He had a way with words that encouraged us to step out of our comfort zone and be more open-minded and creative,” she said.
“I think he was very insightful and inspiring. That will be hard to find in another professor.”
During his time here, Wilson also travelled extensively with MCCC’s Study Abroad program.
“I’ve travelled on every Study Abroad trip the school has had, except in 2015,” he said.
“It’s been a tremendous joy to be involved with Study Abroad. I’ve been fortunate to travel the world through MCCC.”
Professor Joanna Sabo travelled with Wilson on Study Abroad many times, giving her a unique working relationship with him.
“He made such a great partner on Study Abroad because I left on the trips knowing my greatest job was to bring the students home safely,” she said.
“Having Professor Wilson with me, I knew I had a partner who also had that foremost in his mind.”
Sabo said he has a way with students she doesn’t see often.
“It takes a very caring professor to do that with his students,” she said.
“He’s touched so many lives, thousands, I’m sure. You’ve got students [who are married] that met in his class, you’ve got students who’ve gotten their art careers started in his class,” she said.
“So many students whose lives he’s touched. He was beloved, he is beloved.”
Sabo said she’s genuinely sad to see him go.
“I’ll be sad to see him retire because I consider him a friend on this campus. We’ve had a lot of adventures taking students to a couple dozen countries,” she said.
Though hard to replace, the school plans to hire someone to take over his classes.
With such a long career ending, Wilson says he’s happy with the way things have gone.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about my life as far as where I’ve worked,” he said.
After retirement, Wilson plans to spend more time with his wife and son.
“I didn’t want to retire until I had something to do,” he said.
“I’m going to spend time helping my son with his videography work.”
Vasser sums up Wilson’s time here nicely.
“His legacy, really, is the students. The lives he’s touched,” he said.