Will Gasper has spent an extraordinary amount of his life giving back to those in need.
He’s spent the last six years working as the Grief Support Services Manager for Hospice of Michigan out of Cadillac. Along with his wife, Patti, the couple has spent much of their lives giving back to their communities through their church, most recently with St. Agnes Catholic Church of Marion.
A licensed counselor, Will also volunteers with Healing Private Wounds – a local organization that helps survivors of sexual abuse.
Will takes on a lot of roles that most humans aren’t capable of. He’s there for support when people need support the most. He counsels and listens to people who are going through the most difficult times of their lives.
He considers it a gift. Just like some are gifted with musical or athletic talents, or mechanical or medical expertise, he was gifted with a listening ear, and a big heart.
Initially interested in parks and recreation, Will spent the vast majority of his career – from 1989 through 2015 – working in grounds operations at Ferris State. But along the way, he received his master’s degree in counseling from Central Michigan University. It was a career decision that brought out the best in him.
We caught up with Will recently where we learned about his story. We learned that Will Gasper is much more than just another face in the crowd.
Marion Press: Where were you born and raised?
Will: I was born in Chesaning, Michigan, in Saginaw County. I spent 18 years there before I moved to East Lansing to do my education. From there, I moved over to the Flint area, and worked over there at the school district [Physical Plant Director] there for six years. And then I moved up here when I hired in at Ferris [as Grounds Supervisor and Director of Grounds Operation for Ferris State University].
MP: What kept you busy as a kid?
Will: Basically, just helping dad. We had a small hobby farm – about 30 acres – and he worked full-time at GM. He worked 2nd shift, and when I’d get out of school – if I wasn’t playing football or baseball – I would go ahead and work the fields and tend to the crops and the animals right after school. He would get home right after midnight, have breakfast, and go right at it – taking care of animals and working the farm. It was a little tag-team operation. I graduated high school in ’69, and from MSU in ’74 with a degree in parks and recreation.
MP: So you started your career working as a plant director and in grounds maintenance. When did you get into counseling?
Will: It was a new career that I taught for 14 years, while I was working full-time in the grounds department. I taught career exploration; I’d help students who were undecided. We had a great time working with the kids to show them what was out there.
I had done some volunteer work at Remus St. Michaels in youth group. When I was attending our youngest daughter’s parent-teacher conference in 1999, Lisa Buckingham – one of the school’s counselors – said, “Mr. Gasper, have you thought about taking Marriage and Family class?” I said, “Why would I do that?” She said, “Because you’d be good at it!”
My first class, I loved it. And I said, I can do this.
MP: And these days, you’re involved in quite a bit. Where are you at right now?
Will: Right now, I retired from [Director of Grounds Operations at] Ferris in 2015, and I had been doing volunteer work for Hospice of Michigan out of the Big Rapids Office, right around 2004 I started that, as soon as I got done with my masters – you had to get 3000 hours of real-life counseling experience. And I could get that doing grief counseling.
When I retired, the head of the counseling department at Hospice invited me to apply for the job in Cadillac, which was 20 hours a week, 2.5 days a week. That fit my schedule, and I could still have 4 or 5 days a week to do what I wanted to: hunting, fishing, and helping my wife with our little place over there in Leroy.
MP: Hospice has to be such a difficult job. What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Will: Number one thing is to be there to support the people, as their loved one’s dying, or even afterwards – especially the kids. We work with families, and their kids are under 14 or 15, and all the way through their parent’s illness… It’s very important for our whole team to provide the support they need. Just listening, and reassuring them that it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be tough. But nothing gives me more satisfaction than being there, if they allow us to help them.
A lot of these people are just confused, they’re angry, they’re pained. They’re heartbroken. When you give them an outlet to talk and know that they’re not going crazy. As painful to the heart that a loss is, the ramifications are physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual. It’s really an honor to walk with people through that journey. And that’s what I love. It’s hard for people who haven’t been given the gift – I often hear, “I couldn’t do that job.” Well, I couldn’t do your job. Everybody’s got a gift, and that’s the way I see my role at Hospice. I’ve been given a gift. I can’t do spiritual care; I can’t be a nurse; I can’t go in and change someone’s diaper like the hospice aids can. It’s a team approach, and we have a great team in Cadillac.
MP: And you’ve been a big part of the church here at St. Agnes.
Will: I’ve always liked reading the readings during mass – every parish I’ve been, I’ve volunteered to read the readings and distribute communion. Visiting the sick – I’ll do visits with folks who are homebound. Patti and I both coordinate the scheduling for readers and distributors.
MP: What do you enjoy the most about being a part of the church?
Will: Community. There’s a lot of folks – especially the widows after they lose their husbands; some after 50, 60 years of marriage – I enjoy checking in with them and seeing how things are going. Just being there to support whoever needs someone to listen to them.
My dad, Joe, he was the example. He may not have given back in a lot of ways, but what he did was he gave people a listening ear, and a smile. You could not get away from my dad without chuckling. He passed away from cancer way too young – at 48 years old. I was 24 years old, and my mom had 6 children still at home. I was at Michigan State, and I would support her as much as I could, but it was tough. It took her a while, but she got through it. She passed away three years ago.
MP: Tell us about your family.
Will: Patti’s a big part of my life – almost 44 years. We have 3 girls, and they’ve given us 7 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. They all live downstate, and they come up for picnics. They come up for fishing. We have a pontoon we take out on Rose Lake. In the winter, we have a steep driveway – 800 feet long, and 40 feet above the road – and we have a sledding party. I purposely leave a lot of snow on that part of the driveway.
We host the kids and take them on memory-making vacations each summer. This time it will be just at our house: They’ll put up their tents, they can sleep in our basement. They’ll bring their friends, their boyfriends. Camp Gasper. My wife is very instrumental. Everything comes from her, as far as social interactions. And she loves it.
MP: What do you enjoy the most about being a part of this community?
Will: People will do anything to help you if you need it. They won’t bother you unless you invite them to stop by, or would like them to help you with something. The generosity of the people. I noticed that this Saturday, when we had the Feeding America food truck. That’s something I also enjoy, being a part of that operation. Over 160 families come every time that food truck shows up. We have folks not only from St. Agnes, but from the United Methodist Church, from the Baptist church, and general community members who just show up to unload and distribute the food.
MP: What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Will: One of the things that’s worked really well for me, is before I react to some news, or somebody’s comment, is to take a deep breath, let it sink in, and evaluate how I’m going to react. We can’t change what happens to us, or what is said to us, or how we were treated, but we can judge and be in control of how we react. I would have to say that’s the best advice that I’ve been given.
Another one is to treat people with kindness, because you never know their story until you get to know them. John Maxwell would always say – and I use this as well, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
MP: Who have been your role models over the years?
Will: My Uncle Lavern, he had 6 boys and 3 girls – 9 kids in the family. In the summers when I was growing up, I’d stay 2 or 3 days with them to help them with their chores. He was really, really a man of faith. There was no question: Nobody could take a bite of food until everyone was gathered around the table to say grace. But you had to pull your own weight – that was a strong lesson on the farm – everybody had to pull their own weight; there’s no such thing as a free meal here.
My dad, he was a very hard worker. Worked at GM for 24 years before he passed. He would provide, on a single income, for seven kids, and a family of nine. That’s the way it was back in the day.
Father Schabel, he was the priest as I was graduating from high school. He was from the Saginaw area, and he organized a food drive. Somehow, I was chosen to deliver the food, along with him and 3 or 4 other kids. We went to one of the poorest parts of Saginaw, on the south end. We took two baskets full of food at Christmas time. This little African-American girl, maybe 8 years old, answered the door. And behind her stood the mom. There were some toys in those baskets, and the mom started crying. It made me realize how important it is to share what you’ve got. To do what you can. I’ve always remembered that. Father Schabel was definitely a big influence in my life.
And Father Joe. He was a role model to everybody here. He helped a lot of the alcoholics in the area – in Evart, and here in Marion. People would come to him, and he would make sure that they were attending the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that we host every Saturday night here. He started the cleanup effort here along M-66 north of town. He would always show up, every spring, to pick up the trash. He was very active in reaching out to our Haiti Parrish. Doing the food drives, and the monetary contributions to help the schools down there. He was very, very involved in social justice. He would always say, “If the people who make the laws would just spend one night in a homeless shelter, they would understand the needs that are out there.”