At 14, Gary Wright made a list of personal goals. Among them: become mayor of a small town, record an album, and write a book.
The first he achieved in spades, leading New Denver village council for over 22 years. The second he accomplished as a sideman. And on Saturday he’ll fulfill the third with the launch of Unrepentant: The Story of an Era, a series of vignettes that chronicle his journey from exiled American to distinguished Canadian.
“One year you’re stateless and wanted by the FBI, another year you get the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for public service,” he mused in an interview this week. “Life is like that: strange and wonderful. My personal philosophy has been ‘Be yourself and chaos is bound to follow.’”
Wright, 65, was born in Montana to what he describes as a “right wing, Republican family,” who taught him the value of principles — which he followed, much to their chagrin.
Although his father was in the army, and he grew up in military bases around the United States, Wright rebelled and became involved with Students for a Democratic Society, a radical anti-war group. He also volunteered to take medical supplies to Vietnam, raising the ire of the American government.
He first came to Canada in 1967, but “was thrown out because the people at immigration decided I would never make a good Canadian.”
Undeterred, he tried again the following year. By then, he’d been placed on internal exile by the US State Department and had his passport revoked. Trying to leave the country could have resulted in a lengthy prison sentence if caught.
But he took the chance anyway, and later renounced his American citizenship. His draft number had by that time come up, giving him extra incentive to stay in Canada. (Although he could have registered as a conscientious objector at one point, Wright says that didn’t much appeal to him.)
He did a variety of jobs, including psychological research for the University of Western Ontario, supervisor at a troubled kids centre, and marriage counsellor. The latter didn’t last long because after a couple of meetings, he recommended his first clients divorce. (“They didn’t want to hear that.”)
Wright became a naturalized citizen in 1974, but his attendance at the ceremony in Vancouver was “necessarily brief” because he was a cabbie at the time, and “double-parked the cab in order to run into the courthouse to pick up my papers — but it was still memorable.”
The year after he and his first wife moved to New Denver. They’d visited friends in nearby Hills and concluded it would be a good place to raise a family. Wright was on the road a lot, however, playing guitar in rock bands and later, once he “couldn’t turn somersaults on stage anymore,” country and western groups.
His first taste of local government came in the mid-1980s on the local recreation commission, and then in 1989 he was tapped by mayor Ken Casley to fill a vacancy on council, minutes before the nomination deadline. A few months later Casley resigned for health reasons and Wright took his place, remaining until retirement last year. Soon after he began working on the book.
Wright has contributed to magazines and newspapers before and authored a book about New Denver’s Appletree sandwich shop, but says writing about himself was different and fun.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a lifetime so once I stopped writing memos and got into a different style that’s fairly natural to me, it just came. You don’t have to work a lot on plot.”
The book includes a chapter by Corky Evans, another American emigre to the Slocan Valley who made it big in Canadian politics, providing what Wright calls a “stereoscopic look at a couple of people the United States spit out who did not too badly up here.”
The book launch is Saturday at the Appletree from 2 to 4 p.m. Readings and signings are also scheduled for Saturday, November 10 at 3 p.m. at the Vallican Whole; Sunday, November 25 at 1 p.m. at the Slocan library; and Saturday, December 1 at the Nakusp library.
Copies are already available in Nelson at Otter and Coles books and it’s available for download as a Kindle ebook. Wright has further produced a limited edition with a soundtrack CD, consisting of songs he and wife DJ recorded that fit the book’s storyline.