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GRCC’s Lone Cowboy

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Gillan. Photo by Jacquelyn Zeman

By Zachary Watkins – Sports Editor

Michael Gillan lives his life like an open book. As a music professor at Grand Rapids Community College who could retire whenever he feels necessary, Gillan teaches life lessons and keys to happiness, not solely through music but also his experiences as a modern-day cowboy.

Growing up in Mount Pleasant, the 61-year-old was born to parents who went through the Great Depression. Growing up, Gillan observed his father and adapted what he learned into his “cowboy core beliefs.”

“Well, I taught high school for 14 years,” Gillan said. “I taught a lot of it out west, and then I realized that I grew up in a western family, but in mid-Michigan. My dad grew up west as a kid. A lot of this stuff was already a part of my belief. The cowboy beliefs are distilled from a lot of different things, but they don’t talk about them. They live them. So my dad lived by this kind of a code and didn’t talk about it much. It was just the way he lived. They aren’t meant to be talked about, they’re meant to be lived.”

Unlike many in today’s society, the music professor is completely open to expressing and sharing his beliefs. Gillan often shares them with his classes, and lists them on his syllabus.

“My syllabus explains to the students what my belief systems are,” Gillan said. “I think students need to know that. When I finally saw the cowboy beliefs in print, I realized that it was sort of how Dad raised us all. I don’t think there’s anything bad in there.

“It’s about doing your work when you’re supposed to. I think it gives some people a chance to think. I use it in my CLS classes and I make them write on it. ‘Hey let’s take a look at No. 8. What does that mean to you?’”

One of Gillan’s biggest philosophies is about teaching the student the subject, not teaching the subject to the student.

“‘We teach people, not just our subjects,” Gillan said of his upcoming speech to the LAND Conference. “I think we need to keep that in mind, at least I try to. To me, I think you’re going to get more from the kids when they understand who you are and where you’re coming from.

“I think everyone has to teach as they are. I just try to be the same person in rehearsal, in class, or talking to students over at the (Raider Grille). I just feel like that kind of situation works best, because students can tell a fake from a mile away.“

Gillan always knew that he wanted to be a teacher, but things did not go as planned at Central Michigan University.

“I just became a bad student,” Gillan said. “I went up to North Central Michigan Community College in Petoskey. I did a year there, the year my Dad opened his store. I ran the store and took night classes. I aced a bunch of gen-eds that year. The best teacher I ever had in my life was there, he got me straightened out.

“So, I went to Petoskey, aced my classes there and transferred to Michigan State. I proved I could get good grades, but then State made me retake some gen-eds, ya know, total BS. They wanted 18 credits and my money. Down there, they make the waivers so hard. I tried to get out of my English 101, and the English teacher goes, ‘Look it, I have a doctorate in English, and I couldn’t pass this waiver. There’s 10,000 pages of reading you have to do.’ I lucked out. I got some good professors. That prof had me sign up for his class and he got me through it.

“Those were the days when people would read your situation. They realized that you’re working full time and trying to go to school full time. I had the three best years and the three most sleep deprived years of my life getting that degree. I had no time to party.”

As an owner of a master’s degree in trombone performance, Gillan has taught all over the United States, including stops in North Dakota, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, Indiana and Michigan.

His first stop, Golva, North Dakota.

“So I’m calling capitals of states out west, and I hit Golva, North Dakota” Gillan said. “So I called them up and the guy said to mail him my stuff. I got hired by that school board over the phone. The job was K-12 music, junior high English, boys PE and head basketball coach. The music room was hooked to the cafeteria, so when (the lunch lady) called in sick, I had to cook hot lunch. Plus, I drove one of the two school buses. There were 33 kids seventh through 12th grade, all in band, but they had never gotten higher than a five at a contest, because the guy teaching them was a good basketball coach, but knew nothing about music.

“In basketball, we won our first three games, but then they found out we were young and couldn’t break a press. We played our hearts out and almost won in district playoffs, we lost by two. It was a great game. Two years later, that group of freshman boys took second in the state as the smallest school district.”

Gillan then went back to school to pursue his master’s degree at Ball State before his next stop.

“Then from there to Hobard, Indiana for two years,” Gillan said. “I didn’t like that part of the world at all. It’s the land that God forgot I think. It’s the old Al Capone area, everything is under the table. I just didn’t fit.

After that Gillan went out to Montana and then to Wyoming for a couple years. He taught two school districts in Montana, one in Wyoming, one back in Montana, one in Nevada, came back to Michigan and then taught in Nebraska.

“I went to University of Michigan-Flint for two years, followed that up with Wayne State College in Nebraska for six years,” Gillan said. “Our bookstore used to get stuff all the time for Wayne State University. Our colors were black and gold and we’d get green and gold crap all the time.“

Wayne State College was Gillan’s final stop before coming to GRCC.

“I was married at the time, and she was a Grand Rapids girl,” Gillan said. “I was getting beaten up about her wanting to get home. This job opened up, I took a look at it, and I saw it had a lot of potential. So I took it when it was offered.

“I love the place and I love teaching. I wish would have figured out that the way I operate works better here than at a four-year college. My schtick wouldn’t work at a big four-year school. I always had the dream of moving to a big school, but I don’t like selling my soul for stuff. I’m still going to be me, and I’m going to teach the way I think I need to teach. I just think this place is a lot more accepting of people who might view things a little bit differently.

“This is a two-year that feels like a four-year. We push the kids hard. For me, this was just the right job at the right time. We’ve got a nice program. It’s about the kids, these kids work hard. They’ve bought into the process, they take a lot of pride in our groups, and they exhibit that. I’m not sure that it’s me, I think a lot of them come here because they didn’t get accepted into a four-year school or they don’t have the money. I think they’ve got a chip on their shoulder. I always want that, I’m natured that way. I’m an underdog kind of guy.”

Gillan’s music prowess was noticed by John Madden, Associate Professor of Music, Associate Director of Bands, and Director of the Spartan Marching Band at Michigan State.

“John Madden of Michigan State came over one day,” Gillan said. “He said ‘You know Gillan, I can’t believe what you’ve done. Ken Bloomquist (MSU Director of Bands) said you were the best builder of programs he’s ever seen and he has no idea how you do it. And I’m not sure you even know. You’ve built a college band that sounds as good as a lot of four-year bands. You’re doing a lot of high-level stuff here where it shouldn’t be happening.’ And I said, ‘Well maybe it should be.’”

Notice of Gillan’s ability to develop bands has been noticed on campus, too. Kevin Dobreff, Music Department head, sees it as well.

“Mike excels at recruiting students to the instrumental music program,” Dobreff said. “His true forté is crafting a very mature sound from the campus band and wind ensemble. Our bands play at a level that rivals those of four-year programs.”

Besides music, Gillan is working on writing a couple books.

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Gillan’s home in Montana. Courtesy photo

“I’ve got a children’s book I’m writing, still looking for an illustrator, but it’s about three little gophers,” Gillan said. “I’m also working on a novel about me teaching out west. It’s about all the small towns. Every town has a guy that’s the town bullshitter. That is cowboy. There’s always one guy that can tell a good story. I’ve met a lot of colorful people. It’s live and let live out there. You don’t meet a lot of colorful people here. So I thought I’d do a little exposé on them.”

Gillan’s original plan was to teach in the upper peninsula, a place he loves, but after spending time in Montana, the state stole his heart.

“I had a college instructor from Montana,” Gillan said. “Our families were close, he was my dad’s best friend. My instructor suddenly died over Thanksgiving in 1975. It hit everyone hard. He said something I’ll never forget, ‘You need to get your damn degree, and you need to head to Montana.’ I said, ‘Why Montana?’ He goes, ‘It’s the only state in the union that will put up with you.’

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The view from Gillan’s property in Montana. Courtesy photo

“What I didn’t realize, is that at one time, there were more singers in the Metropolitan area from Montana than any other state. Their music out there used to be top drawer, but it’s fallen a bit. Montana is a weird state, it used to be full of Scotsmen. The thing you start to understand is that the Scots used to believe in education. Take a look at the great Scot poets and writers. The arts were so much stronger in that state than in Nebraska when I was there.

“Montana’s got beautiful scenery. Once I moved there I knew. When Mom and Dad moved out and retired, I helped them out with the property. I go out there around Christmas for three weeks. I got my mom out there and my sister lives next door.”

Being one-eighth Native American, Gillan has developed a passion for the culture.

“I had a great grandmother who was 100 percent Native American,” Gillan said. “We have no idea about her. She came out of Nebraska, so we assume she’s from one of the Sioux tribes, but she could have been something else.

“My great grandfather left Indiana to make his fortune in the gold fields of Montana. It didn’t go well. So, he’s on the train back and it stops in Omaha, where he meets this beautiful Native American girl. Her family sold her to a white family and she was basically their slave, doing house cleaning, watching the kids and cooking.

“They fell in love, so one night, he got the train times, put a ladder up to her window, they ran down and caught the train to Chicago. They eloped and the rest is history.”

As for when he’s moving out to Montana and getting out of Dodge, Gillan doesn’t know. He’s just happy with the time he has and that GRCC gave him a chance.

“This will be the first summer I don’t teach summer school, so I’ll go out there for three months,” Gillan said. “I’m at that age where … I’ve always taken a month off, but I need to start spending more time out there.

“I’m very appreciative to the college that they saw something in me. I’m very appreciative to have this job. It’ll probably be my last one. I could call it at anytime.”