Terry Wilson has won five Emmys for his television directing, producing, and on-camera hosting; he’s been a national martial arts champion; and his 1998 article on the Marine dogs of World War II won best-short prize in a national contest held by the Ralston Purina Company. If he has been a big winner, he says, it’s because he has learned. Everything in life worth learning, he adds, he learned from dogs.
“My first teacher was my neighbor’s dog, Sleepy. He was a scruffy old hound and he taught me courage.”
At 51, Wilson, with his brown hair and blue eyes, still retains some of the rugged good looks that as a young man won him an invitation (later declined) to be the Marlboro Man. A little less than average in height, he has a good-natured canine feistiness. So did Sleepy.
“He was part terrier, part shepherd, with a big helping of beagle tossed in for good measure, but he was old.” Wilson described him as a Heinz 57 pooch constructed from spare doggie parts. “But he was for me a 100 percent purebred friend.”
Wilson grew up in a suburb outside Dayton, Ohio. His was an unremarkable childhood, though his parents would later divorce. By the time he was ten, his ongoing love of chocolate shakes had left him fat, and “fat kids don’t have many pals. But Sleepy didn’t care how I looked; he liked me because I liked him.”
For two years Terry shared his problems with Sleepy, shared his lunches, and shared naps under a nearby oak tree. Sleepy belonged to his neighbor, “but we adopted each other.”
Shamus Nickleson was the neighborhood bully. Three years older than Wilson, he called him names and liked beating him up.
“I never did anything to provoke his anger. I was just a fat kid, and fat kids are easy targets for bullies.”
Most of the time he was able to hide from him, but one day Nickleson and two buddies found him feeding Sleepy a pork chop.
“What are you doin’, fat boy?”
“What do ya mean ‘nothin’,’ fat boy?” Shamus and his henchmen circled the pair. The older boy shoved him. His buddies urged Wilson to fight back.
“But I didn’t know how. I’d never raised my fist in anger to anyone. I tried to escape, but before I could run he hit me in the stomach and smacked me in the jaw. I fell to the ground in tears.”
Sleepy dropped his pork chop and placed himself between the two. He growled, but Shamus was not intimidated. “You old fleabag,” he scoffed. According to Wilson, Sleepy’s wobbly old legs could barely support his 30 pounds of gray fur; but he stood his ground. Shamus kicked the dog in the side.
“Don’t do that!” screamed Terry.
“Who’s gonna stop me, punk?” Shamus yelled. He picked up a heavy stick and struck Sleepy across the neck.
“I will never forget Sleepy’s pitiful whimper as the blow landed,” said Wilson. “But my friend refused to leave my side. Shamus and his buddies laughed at both of us. Then he raised the stick for a second attack.”
Neighbors a block away would later report that they heard Wilson’s scream as he leaped to his feet.
“Shamus couldn’t believe what happened next; frankly, neither could I. One moment I was cowering, begging for mercy, the next moment I was a raging tiger. I wrestled the stick from the kid’s grip then threw him to the ground. Anger took the place of skill and strength.”
The larger and stronger Shamus punched Terry about the head and shoulders while Terry bit Shamus on the leg and gave him a head butt. Even Sleepy, he said, got in a few licks. Between the two of them, they ran Shamus and his sidekicks out of the yard.
Blue light filters into his living room, rinsing over the beige and oatmeal colors of Wilson’s Ocean Beach apartment. “Sure, it was a small victory for man and man’s best friend, but for me it was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to protect the Sleepys of the world. Thanks to the courage of an old dog, I learned that sometimes a person has got to fight for what’s right, no matter what the odds.”
Wilson’s prize-winning account of the WWII war dogs ends with the commandant of the Marine Corps speaking of the war dog memorial erected on Guam. He called it a tribute to fallen Marines. Wilson likes to point out that he did not call them dogs; he called them Marines.
Years passed and the youngster lost weight, became a national martial arts champion, and found a career in television and radio. The lesson Sleepy taught him, he said, carried him all the way to Los Angeles, where he encountered his next teacher.
“His name was Mr. Beau Jangles, a 40-pound cocker-terrier mix. For 21 years he was my constant companion and friend. He taught me how to love.”
Wilson was directing a game show, Dialing for Dollars, for KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. “This was back in the days of live TV, and each week the show did a segment that featured an animal from the local shelter. The show was the animal’s last chance to find a home before being put down.” For this reason, he admitted, he tried not to interact with the animals because it was too hard to walk away knowing that their fate would be decided in a three-minute television segment. One day, though, as he walked through the set to the director’s booth, he felt like someone was watching him.
“It was then that I saw a pair of little brown eyes. They locked onto mine and drew me like a magnet to a large cardboard box. Inside was a black puppy with a white patch of fur that ran the length of his nose.”
Surrounded by adoring staff members, the animal never took his eyes off Wilson, who said he felt as if the puppy was talking to him.