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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson is one of 12 winners of this year's President's Award for Outstanding Service.

Lucky for the U

Coach Gary Wilson and 11 others honored with President's Award for Outstanding Service

By Rick Moore

Brief, June 14, 2006

In terms of accolades and accomplishments, this year has been something of a personal best for the University's Gary Wilson, the 21-year head coach of the women's track and field and cross country teams. Wilson's track and field team notched its first-ever Big Ten Outdoor Championship in his tenure this spring. He was subsequently named Big Ten Coach of the Year and U.S. Track & Field/Cross Country Coaches Association 2006 Midwest District Coach of the Year.

Add to that list yet another special and, for Wilson, unexpected honor. He was named one of 12 recipients of the 2006 President's Award for Outstanding Service, given annually to individuals who demonstrate unusual commitment to the University community (see sidebar).

"I was flabbergasted," said Wilson of receiving the honor. "Across this University, there are so many good people... I [thought], 'Why did I get this?'"

To his colleagues at the University, the answers are varied, but they distill to one common theme--he shows uncommon care for his student-athletes, not to mention his friends and other acquaintances. While he considers himself lucky--lucky to be working for his athletes--it's those around him who wind up using that adjective to describe themselves.

President's Award for Outstanding Service

Carol Chomsky
, professor, Law School

Betty Jo Johnson, executive administrative specialist, College of Education and Human Development

Dennis Jones, teaching specialist, Department of American Indian Studies, College of Liberal Arts

Mary Jo Kane, professor, School of Kinesiology, College of Education and Human Development

Jenny Meslow, director, Center for Health Interprofessional Programs, Academic Health Center

Debbie Nelson, special assistant to the dean and curriculum director, Law School

Charles Patterson, senior laborer, Landcare, Facilities Management

Louis Pignolet, professor, Institute of Technology

Sharyn Schelske, program director, McNair Scholars Program, General College

Thomas Soulen, associate professor emeritus, Department of Plant Biology, College of Biological Sciences

Theodore Thompson, M.D., professor, Departments of Pediatrics, Medical School

Gary Wilson, head coach, Women's Cross Country and Track and Field, Intercollegiate Athletics

On the track, Wilson is described as fiery yet humorous. He sets a standard for his athletes that is rigorous, requiring dedication and discipline both on and off the field, one colleague wrote in a supporting letter. "When the athletes achieve the standards that Gary has set, they have the satisfaction of knowing that they have accomplished something very meaningful."

Wilson insists that his student-athletes put a priority on academics. That is reflected in his team's grade-point average, said to be usually at or above a 3.5. For 10 consecutive years, his teams' cumulative GPA has been over 3.0.

Wilson is also singled out for his positive perspective and the seemingly boundless energy he has to devote to his "kids."

"I've always been in awe by how Gary can give each student on his team the attention they feel they deserve," says another colleague. "When I attend track meets, I always see students who were on the team years ago. They come back because they have a lasting relationship with the coach, program, and institution. Gary instills a sense of community."

A fellow coach, who nominated Wilson for the award, likened him to Mr. Rogers for the scope of his attention to others. "To be in [Mr. Rogers's] sphere was to be special," he says. "So it is with every acquaintance of Gary's, and each of his pursuits."

Wilson's concern was perhaps never more evident than in his care for Jack Johnson, a University equipment manager for 29 years. Johnson had very little family support and recently died of cancer. Wilson took him to every doctor's appointment and treatment, says an associate. He purchased necessary medications and visited Johnson every day, finally welcoming him into the Wilson home when he could no longer be alone and helping with his final move to a hospice house. Wilson also led the athletics department's efforts to honor Johnson by naming an indoor track meet after him and awarding him with the national M Club's Service Award--and a letter jacket: "Jack's pride and joy."

"Out of this tragic loss came a renewed sense of coming together in friendship for this newly merged [athletics] department," says the colleague, "as we all struggled to deal with how to show Jack, and each other, our love and support."

"I didn't do anything that a good friend wouldn't do for anyone else," Wilson says, adding that the honor should go to everyone who assisted Johnson. "But for a bad thing, it wound up turning into being one of the most inspiring things I've been involved with."

And it's a perfect example of the care and compassion Wilson offers to the many lives in the University community he touches each year.

Wilson's athletes have talked about how he walks into practice saying, "Hello, you lucky people."

"Hearing that every day made them realize that they really are lucky people," says a colleague. "They are attending a great institution. They get to participate in a sport they love. And they get to be coached by someone who really loves coaching them." Wilson, along with the other award winners and guests, will be honored at a reception at Eastcliff on Thursday afternoon, June 15.