Gary Speese has a million-dollar smile and personality to match.
I caught up with him in May after he spoke at the Tabor College commencement. He responded to some questions via email.
“I came through Hillsboro during spring break 1981, and tried out with the (basketball) team,” said Speese. “It was an instant connection with the guys, the serenity in the community, and the basketball program. I knew I belonged at Tabor College. I had come from a NCAA Division II school, but wanted the smaller, Christian atmosphere.”
Making the transition to Hillsboro as a young Black man wasn’t difficult for Speese.
“I knew the environment that I was coming to, as far as the ethnic background of the people. However, the glue that held it together was Christianity. I knew I was a believer in Christ, and I knew the Mennonite Brethren people were also Christians. So, I just had to get used to being in the middle of a Kansas farming community and rural surroundings. Once I mentally made that shift in my mind, I was able to adapt and thrive,” said Speese.
Speese was emphatic that he did not experience any racism while in Hillsboro. “No, not at all! I believe the faculty, staff, and community embraced me as a business student first (I red-shirted my first year). After I started playing basketball in year two, meeting more people, thriving in my classes … it was a match made in heaven.”
The men’s basketball program at Tabor was outstanding at the time, with the Bluejays winning the KCAC championship both years Speese was on the team in 1982-83 and 1983-84.
“I liked Don (Coach Brubacher), and he helped to mold me into the man I am today. He was a good balance for me,” said Speese.
Speese also had an outstanding relationship with faculty members Don Isaac, Marvin Sellberg, Jack Braun, and Walt Kleinsasser. “These men really helped shape my life in a lot of different areas. They treated me as the young, ambitious college guy that I was. There was never a question of race or prejudice in any way.
“Many of the ladies in the cafeteria were my favorites also, because they made sure that I was fed and well-cared for in the nutrition area,” said Speese.
Speese was Tabor’s Student Body President in 1983-84, calling it “a fantastic experience. I believed that I could make a difference at Tabor in this leadership role. I knew that the students accepted me, and didn’t really see the color of my skin. I believe they were looking at the business student, the basketball player, and all-around friend to many of my college peers,” said Speese.
“I enjoyed coming back to Tabor again (at commencement in spring). I felt a sense of family. I meant it wholeheartedly when I said, ‘I’m the student’s new ‘Uncle Gary’ now.’ I would like to be a sounding board for many current and new students that arrive on campus. It is my way of giving back to the college that gave so much to me.
“My advice to current students at Tabor would be to stay grounded in God! Keep learning about God, the Holy Trinity, and about faith, hope, and love. These things will be your foundation. Also, you came to Tabor for a reason; it was not by mistake… it was a divine appointment in your life for two, three, or all four years. Embrace the changes you are going to go through in order to thrive on Tabor’s campus. Learn about your gifts that God has given you, excel in your academic skills, and get to know as many people on Tabor’s campus as you can.
“Get out of your comfort zone and meet people from other ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and different parts of the world. There is never any growth in your comfort zone. These divine meetings that you’ll have with people, could be the basis of lasting friendships for the rest of your life,” said Speese.
His professional career spans technology, mortgage and real estate, and education. He’s also proud of his three young adult daughters.
Speese plans to return to Tabor during Homecoming to meet the new students and hang out on campus.
Speese is still smiling, and a part of Tabor College.