In Memoriam: Celebrating the Memory of Mike Wilson

Oh the stories he would tell…. Mike Wilson was a man of deep passions, absolute commitment, and unique transparency.

He loved life, which for him included fierce loyalty to his family, his friends, his dogs, his Catholic upbringing and faith, and his profession. He balanced them all with a boundless energy.

To know Mike Wilson was to know Mike Wilson stories, which always involved a self-effacing humor that exposed a vulnerability.  His love of storytelling and good humor prodded him to roll past the barriers and buzzers most of us build and install to protect ourselves from the judgments of others.  Mike loved to tell stories about himself.

I have far too many to choose just one.

There was the time he decided to dry his rain-soaked sweatpants in a hotel microwave and in the process set off some pyrotechnics that engulfed the room in a cloud of thick smoke that forced an evacuation of the property.

Another time he made it all the way to Yakima where he was refueling only to realize that the key fob he needed to restart the car was sitting in his house in Vancouver.

The classic may have been when he pulled away from a gas station with the pump handle still inserted in his car.

Mike had many stories like these, and he freely told them on himself.  This combination was quite endearing.

I spent countless hours on the road with Mike, especially in the early years of our work together.  Between the six years at Innovative Services NW, where I worked with him as my client, and the 14 years since he came to Westby Associates, I had so many opportunities for rich and long conversations on a variety of topics; business and personal.

I cherish the memories of those conversations.

Of all his considerable talents, his most natural seemed to be in front of a microphone, on a stage, before a crowd, with a handful of cue cards discretely stacked on a podium he would rarely stay behind.

He loved most I think the interview format.  Of those many trips to Boardman, and Elgin, and Enterprise, and Yakima, and Ellensburg, and Chelan, and Astoria, and Maupin, and The Dalles, and Bend, and Grants Pass, there were times where I couldn’t help but feel that I was the subject of a Mike Wilson interview myself.

It was – I finally figured out –  not something he did.  It was simply who he was.

I hate using the word was about him.  This world needed more Wilson stories; if only to learn to laugh at itself.

Mike was good at that.

He was also good at servant leadership, which works tremendously well in rural towns where leading through actions as well as words is currency of the realm.  Here’s what Chantay Jett, Executive Director of Wallowa Center for Wellness, had to say in a recent unsolicited text:

This is all so weird.  I don’t know that I’ve ever been so stunned actually.  Maybe I didn’t realize just how endeared he was to me.  He was kind of a father figure, coach, strategist.  He was just such a lovely and thoughtful and kind human…

CDM Executive Director Eric Erickson put it this way:

What I wouldn’t give to share another cigar and have you interview me one last time as only a former radio host could do. You were always so genuinely interested in what other people were experiencing. Thank you for all your great work, but also your friendship. Cheers!

Many have mentioned his name among others recently lost to us.  Mike and I worked together for so long we actually had the benefit of dozens of conversations about some of those people over the years. Bob Gaylor, Ed Firstenburg, Ray Hickey, John McKibbin, and Ed Lynch seem to stand out.

He would have never presumed to put himself in their esteemed company.  And yet they all individually and gladly had put themselves in his, and often.  Mike just had that way about him.

State and local political leaders of every stripe also considered him a friend.

Senator Annette Cleveland said it as succinctly as any:

This is such a terrible loss. Michael worked tirelessly to make our community a better place. He will be so very missed.

The man will be especially missed around here.  Staff drank deeply from the Wilson well of knowledge and experience, which often came out in his narrative yarns.  It seems his storytelling had purposes that stretched well past entertainment.

I’ll close with one such tale, which is perhaps my favorite.

It was about ten years ago and we were meeting at PDX to board an early morning flight for Medford.  The day’s meeting schedule was especially critical, although I can no longer recall the reasons, nor do they matter.  I sat at the gate as they began calling us to board.  My phone rang.  It was Mike.  He was – he said – just arriving at the airport.  I grew frustrated that he would miss the flight, and his attitude seemed to convey relative indifference to my mounting concerns.  I started in on a spirited rebuke as I stood in the line to board and then saw the faces of people in line with me as they were smiling broadly.  Sure enough, standing right behind me was one Michael Ray Wilson, whose own smile – eyes twinkling – blinded the room.

I always admired him for that moment.  The pluck.  The wit.  The mischief.

Pure Wilson.

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