ILENE GEISS-WILSON: GRAYLING'S CHEERLEADER
2017 / By Kurt J. Kolka
GRAYLING -- When Ilene Geiss-Wilson came to Grayling in her junior year of high school, she had no idea she would become one of the town’s most prominent voices to visitors, as the Director of the Grayling Visitors Bureau.
“I consider myself Grayling’s cheerleader,” Ilene says with a laugh.
“My first contact at the high school was [school counselor] Bob Bovee. He was very helpful,” says Ilene. She had spent her previous years in a farming community in Pennsylvania. Adjusting from country life to town life took some time, but she says the people made it easier.
“It was easy to make friends here and the teachers were very helpful.”
During her high school days, Ilene says she was not much of a participant in school-related activities. She preferred just hanging out with her friends during those years.
Her father, Don Geiss, was well known in the area as a freelance writer and employee for a company which sold films to schools. Her mom, Maxine, was a medical transcriptionist.
Ilene’s first job was working at McDonald’s during it’s earliest years in Grayling. She obviously enjoyed it, because she stayed on for more than 20 years, working her way into management.
During this time, she met Steve Wilson through a mutual friend. He is a mechanic out at Camp Grayling.
She and Steve married in 1987. They have two children, Rachel, 24, and Curtis, 22.
It was while being pregnant that Ilene took a part-time job at the Grayling Chamber of Commerce, which would eventually lead to her current position.
At one point, both visitor and commerce duties were carried out by the chamber office. However, as the Chamber Director’s role expanded over the years, a need developed to create a separate office for a visitors bureau. It was then Ilene’s hard work for the chamber paid off and she accepted the position of director of the Grayling Visitors Bureau.
“I’m involved in some committees, but the majority of my job is marketing and advertising,” says Ilene.
One of the committees she is involved in is the Pathways Trail for walking and biking which is expected to run the length of the state.
“This is Gov. Snyder’s baby. And, you know, they’re talking about having this trail go from Belle Isle [near Detroit] all the way up into the Upper Peninsula. And Grayling will be a part of that.”
The trail is a complex project, involving the Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR), the local road commission and the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT). The components Ilene is working on includes linking the trail from Higgins Lake to Grayling, connecting to the bike trail at the north end of town, then another trail which will connect from where that trail ends at the high school to where the trail will begin in Gaylord.
The importance of the trail project, according to Ilene, is that once it is finished, it gets national publicity because it’s a statewide trail.
“The challenge is that the project is not well-funded. What Crawford County is struggling with right now is match dollars for the grants we are applying for. Crawford County is not a wealthy community.”
Despite the challenges, the Pathways Trail is exactly the type of project which will bring people into Grayling to experience it.
“People have a back-to-nature type of lifestyle here. The outdoors is what we’re about. The AuSable and Manistee rivers, Hartwick Pines State Park. And the other aspect which makes Grayling special is the friendly people.”
Ilene admits these are the same reasons she has stayed in Grayling.
“You walk into a store and you know half the people who are there. You mean to run into the grocery store to pick ups couple items and you’re in there for a half hour because you’re talking to people.”
Away from the office, Ilene enjoys the peace of the Manistee River which flows by her house. It is perfect setting for reading, one of her favorite hobbies.
Another hobby is assisting with the high school plays. She enjoys working in costumes. Ilene started doing this while her daughter was in school and liked it so much she has continued to be a part of it.
Looking back, there is a certain irony in how her life has progressed since she first came here. She has gone from the girl who wasn’t so interested in local activities to the woman who now is involved in bringing more people into this hometown she has adopted.
Yet, there may be a deeper change for her since her family left their farm in Pennsylvania. She readily admits, “I am a small town girl.”