There’s a reason Queen Anne community volunteers speak of Craig Wilson with a touch of affectionate awe and why their words seem genuine.
Last July, a peak behind the curtain of Queen Anne Days would have revealed scores of volunteers working hard to give the community its day in the sun. None worked harder than Wilson, though, who brought it all together — from pounding nails to coordinating a parade and picnic.
Some Queen Anne residents know Wilson as the owner of Video Isle; others through his work as a volunteer selling Christmas trees for the Queen Anne Helpline.
He is the humorous, post-race master of ceremonies to those who take part in the Crown of Queen Anne Fun Run & Walk. Upper Queen Anne merchants know him as a mainstay in their business association, while members of the Greater Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce know him as an active and tireless volunteer.
Then there’s the Queen Anne Helpline, where Wilson has served as a board member for two decades and two stints as president.
It’s impossible for Wilson to traverse the upper Queen Anne neighborhood, where he lives with his wife of 21 years, Carol, without being stopped by someone he knows.
Wilson is involved in so many activities and wears so many hats, often simultaneously, that he can’t avoid crossing paths with himself. Given his penchant for offbeat humor, it’s easy to imagine him nodding in recognition as he passes by his other self.
In a way, Wilson is living his dream.
“He’s probably got the biggest heart of anybody I’ve ever known,” said longtime Queen Anne Helpline board member Jonas Simonis. “He’s not a pussycat. He has a feeling for tough love and for people taking personal responsibility.”
“He’s also impatient to get things done,” Simonis noted. “He’s not much for process. He’s a hip-shooter. People who want to get things done have to be hip-shooters.”
Despite an inner reticence, especially when credited for his community work, Wilson’s engaging, public persona is part of the Queen Anne landscape.
“I am in charge of my life,” Wilson reflected. “I am accountable for my life — the good, the bad and the ugly.”
That includes his business and the people he employs.
“As long as I assume the responsibility for it, I can’t think of a better way to make a living,” he said of Video Isle, which is in its third decade on Queen Anne and in Fremont.
In the late 1990s, when Blockbuster Video opened down the street, concern for Wilson’s operation circulated throughout the community, but Video Isle, unlike the store down the street, is still standing.
Of course, the industry is besieged.
“We’re actually doing pretty well,” Wilson said, “though it’s been a rough three years.”
Wilson shucks talk of business models and bottom-line solemnities by deploying his own brand of humor: “It’s a wild ride, Mr. Toad. Hang on tight.”
In some ways, it has been. And he has.
Assassinations and after
Born in 1949, Wilson, 63, attended high school in Santa Rosa, Calif. His dad was a building contractor who taught Wilson how to work with his hands. The family followed the work.
“I was a good kid,” Wilson recalled, “until about the eighth grade.”
Wilson never graduated from high school — he worked full time from age 15 on — but earned his GED during the Vietnam War years.
When the family lived in southern Utah, they kept chickens, bulls, sheep and ducks; Wilson hauled hay, fished and camped a week at a time.
“I didn’t even think we were working-class poor,” he said.
The turmoil of those years left their mark — especially the assassinations. He remembers his eighth-grade teacher wept in class at the news of President John F. Kennedy’s murder.
In June 1968, two months after the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Wilson and his dad took a road trip from Phoenix to Pullman, Wash. Somewhere in the wide-open spaces, they pulled over at a truck stop, and his dad got out of the car. When he climbed back in, he told his son what he’d heard: “Bobby [Kennedy]’s just been shot.”
The era’s craziness is reflected in Wilson’s story of a friend, slated for a Selective Service medical exam, who went days without sleep while drinking copious cups of coffee to drive his blood pressure up. To throw in a bit of hearing loss just to make sure, he asked Wilson to fire a high-powered rifle next to his ear.
His friend got out of the draft, all right — with a skin problem.
“I see youth today — I wouldn’t want to switch places with them,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t want to be 18 unless I knew the things I know now.”
Some tough years followed the 1960s.
“I have been without a home before. I’ve slept in the deserts, slept in a car as a young man,” he said.
The soul of the community
Those experiences have informed Wilson’s community volunteer activities. They also informed his remarks last July during a salute to retiring Queen Anne Helpline director Pat Sobeck, hosted by developer Ken Woolcott on West Highland Drive.
Wilson addressed the crowd: “We’re here in Ken’s beautiful homes, eating hors d’oeuvres and drinking wine. [But] the lonely call of human beings can never become obsolete. Never throw anyone away.”
Hossein Soleymani, branch manger of HomeStreet Bank on upper Queen Anne, has known Wilson through their shared work with the Helpline and Queen Anne chamber.
“What is it this guy doesn’t do on the Hill?” Soleymani asked. “He’s my role model. He has the biggest heart. He does so much and expects nothing in return.”
“I told him, ‘Craig, I’m waiting for your book to come out someday. I’ll read it,’” Soleymani said, adding, “He’s very funny on the outside. And he has a lot inside.”
As president of the Queen Anne chamber and chair of the upper Queen Anne Merchants Association, Lauren Formicola, owner of Charley + May co., has also seen Wilson at work.
“Craig has been the catalyst for getting me involved,” she said. “He’s one of the drivers of business on the Hill. He’s a giver. He’s generous. He’s genuine. He’s connecting people all the time.”
Of Wilson’s humor, which can disarm the little frictions that sometimes crop up among community volunteers, Formicola said, “He always has something funny to say. He’s the 14-year-old guy who still makes everybody laugh.”
So what drives him to do so much on his own time?
“Somebody needs to help,” Wilson remarked flatly. “Something needs to be done.”
For the young man who once slept in cars, Queen Anne is home: “The character and soul of this community are unlike any other where I have lived,” Wilson said.
Wilson is steadfastly self-deprecating: The modesty is not false but part of a hard-earned worldview: “I’m just your average guy who had opportunities, who was there. There’s nothing special about me, whatsoever.”
Others would take exception with that, but perhaps not with Wilson’s ultimate take on reality: “If you can be at peace with yourself when you lay your head down on the pillow — that was a successful day.”