The heart of a community – Mike Wilson

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photo by Emmylou Harmon Mike Wilson smiles as he watches his 4-H group experiment with photography. Mr. Wlson was always willing to share his knowledge and talents.
photo by Emmylou Harmon Mike Wilson smiles as he watches his 4-H group experiment with photography. Mr. Wlson was always willing to share his knowledge and talents.

by Marissa Lorenz
Kremmling is feeling the deep loss of an inspirational educator, a dedicated friend, a generous neighbor, and a talented visual chronicler with the unexpected death of Mr. Mike Wilson on Saturday, February 6.

A Denver native and a graduate of Colorado State University, Mr. Wilson spent a couple of years teaching in Africa with the Peace Corps, where he discovered education as his vocation. After returning to Colorado, he taught for a few more years in Estes Park and Gilpin County before finding his lifelong place in Kremmling.

“I very much wanted to come to a small rural school district on the Western Slope,” he would say years later, explaining that he felt that he could “make a real difference in an area that embraced a ‘self-reliant ethos.’”

Mr. Wilson first came home to Kremmling in 1982, taking up the role of West Grand High School’s math/science teacher for the 1982-83 school year. It is a position he would hold for 37 years before retiring in 2018. And it was through this position that most Kremmling residents first knew the man they would continue to affectionately call “Mr. Wilson” years after they and even their children had graduated.

Mr. Wilson had a passion for knowledge and discovery and shared that passion with generations of students. He taught classes ranging from Geology to Astronomy to Chemistry to Physics to Advanced Physics to Calculus to Remedial Math.

“My focus was always on the academic rigorous development of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics),” he would say upon his retirement. “(…) The message has never changed: develop your mathematical skills in high school, be an effective communicator, and learn how to learn.”

And that message would be instilled into his many students, as evidenced by the large number of engineers coming out of West Grand in that time period and by the 130-plus remembrances posted to the Grand Gazette’s Facebook page upon his passing.

“Mr. Wilson was the most amazing chemistry teacher that west grand [sic.] has ever had. He was always there for all of his students and had so much passion for what he did,” remarked Reyna Yazmin.

“I have so many memories of him, from making chocolate chip cookies as this was his way of teaching us chemistry to trying to help him clean his messy classroom.”

“The way he taught was special, and the way he cared about each of his students even more so,” noted Jessica Gregory. “Even after he left, seeing him at every event felt amazing, and everytime [sic.] I did see him, he would make sure to check up on how I was doing. He never doubted that I could be where I am today.”

“Mr. Wilson encouraged many in our class to strive way beyond the minimum requirements of our courses,” observed Tyson Parrot. “He pushed us into advanced material that set us on the path to success we took. He was an excellent teacher and a gentle soul. He will be missed.”

Mr. Wilson worked to build up the math and science programs at the high school and was always a proponent of new technology, especially in its potential for learning.

In 2007, he was instrumental in finding funding for the 14-inch telescope and metal observatory building that still sits adjacent to
the football field today. He gathered community support and helped secure grant funding through such organizations as the El Pomar Youth in Community Service Club and the Summit Foundation. He helped solicit the building donation from White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces, NM, as well as restoration monies for the 55-plus-year-old structure from Blue Valley Ranch and Mountain Parks Concrete. “(…) most impactful was the time when you invited my two children, my husband, and myself into the planetarium at the high school when Saturn’s ring was visible,” remembered Rhonda Ilgner. “We got to sit in the ‘driver’s seat’ of the giant telescope and
look up at the magnificence. Then you showed my son his namesake; Orion’s Belt. We will always remember that special time. Your kind, fair, enthusiastic attitude for life will live on in all of us.”

Mr. Wilson’s influence clearly reached far beyond the classroom. During his time at West Grand, he would sponsor many events and clubs, including such unique groups as Astronomy Club and Geek Club.

“[I’m] sure I didn’t get the full excitement of you being a teacher,” wrote Mycah Miller, “but when I was in Geek club you were a great captain for it. I loved all the field trips and every meeting the club had. My favorite memory was when we went to the theater in Silverthorne to go watch a movie which I can’t remember [sic.] but the bus ride was so fun and all six of the students in the club had a blast. This is by far my favorite memory of Mr. Wilson and of high school.”

He organized and supervised many Friday school events, took students skiing at Winter Park and to the circus in Denver, led field trips to view local geology and state history, and helped 4-Hers with camps and projects. In everything, he was generous with his knowledge, encouraged learning-by-doing, and promoted the educational value of hands-on experience.

“Wherever there was a need that would help in the enrichment of kids’ lives, that’s where he would be,” stated Martha Schake, longtime WGSD Financial Director.

Mr. Wilson was also a keen photographer, integral in recording the remote rural lifestyle of Kremmling and its people. He acted as the Mustang sports photographer from the beginning of the Grand Gazette and joined the newspaper’s team as the professional (and ready-for-anything) photographer upon his retirement from West Grand Schools.

His exemplary photographs have not only graced nearly every issue of the Gazette in that time, but they have been consistently shared by family and friends and even framed as the keepsake images that those friends and family wish to hold onto.

“So many pictures I have that he took,” noted Pat Pryor. “He was the best photographer and never afraid to be in the middle of it all–and so humble. He will be missed greatly!!”

Mr. Wilson was an enthusiastic mountain man. He enjoyed hiking, fly-fishing, biking, and skiing. And it was during his first run at Arapahoe Basin on Saturday, doing one of the things he loved most, that he suffered a fatal cardiac event.

Mr. Wilson was universally recognized for his kindness and community-mindedness. He shared his largeness of spirit and gentility of character with all he knew. In appreciation of that spirit, he was honored on Tuesday night during the West Grand High School Senior Recognition night.

“(…) Mike Wilson left an impression of a man that was determined and dedicated to not only making our students feel special but to celebrate the community here in Kremmling,” recognized West Grand teacher and coach Ryan Tripicchio, before asking for a moment of silence in Mr. Wilson’s memory.

Additional plans are being made by family and friends for a celebration of life to take place in late spring/early summer when the weather improves and larger gatherings are once again permitted. Emmylou Harmon describes the current vision as an outdoor event with a clear sky and a cool astronomical event, where the observatory can be dedicated to Mr. Wilson and stories can be shared in community, the way he would have wanted.

To read more personal comments, memories, and anecdotes about Mr. Mike Wilson and his expansive impact on Kremmling and its citizens, go to Facebook.com/GrandGazette.

Author’s note:
Kim Cameron and I have both had the pleasure of knowing Mike Wilson as a colleague at West Grand Schools, as a teacher to our children (Kim was herself a student of Mr. Wilson’s), as a community partner, and as an accomplice in the Grand Gazette.
We will always remember Mike for his tireless dedication to Kremmling and its youth, his genuine concern for everyone he met, and his patient faith in the possibilities within each of us. He was, as Kim expressed perfectly, “a beautiful soul who loved Kremmling and its people.” He was our kindest and best cheerleader. Kremmling will not be the same without him.

Note: Justin Frawley is our new 4-H program coordinator!