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.
“I started to walk away when this guy named Vince appeared. He was a bully like Shamus. As the station’s stage manager, he delighted in verbally abusing his crew. We worked some of the same shows together, but I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me.”
While the puppy continued to hold Wilson in his gaze, Vince reached down and wrapped his hairy knuckles around the dog’s waist. As Wilson recalls it, the dog nipped at the hand and then relieved himself on Vince’s wrist. Suddenly the hot-tempered stage manager opened his hand as if to slap the pup.
“I grabbed his wrist. ‘Don’t even think about it!’ ” Everyone at the station knew Wilson’s reputation in martial arts; like most bullies, Vince backed down when confronted. He put on his headset and went about his business, and so did Wilson.
“But all the time I was in the booth directing the show, I kept thinking about that little puppy.”
It came time for the adoption segment. The host of the show held the dog up to the camera and began his pitch. As he rattled out the telephone number, the dog kept looking around.
“I knew he was looking for me. My heart leaped to my throat as I opened the studio mike and interrupted the live broadcast. ‘Dave, this is Terry. The dog is going home with me.’ ”
Wilson still remembers the amazed look on the SPCA representative’s face when she brought the pup to the control booth. “Beau leaped from her arms into my lap. Deep down inside I felt like ol’ Sleepy had set this whole thing up.”
Beau and Terry loved to wrestle. From the time he was a pup, he’d take him down using one of his favorite judo techniques. From a standing position he’d lean into the dog’s chest, sneak his right leg behind his left one, then gently sweep him to the floor. They played this game for about a year, then to his amazement, Beau turned the tables on him.
“One day we were wrestling and Beau, no longer a pup, leaned against me, stuck his leg behind mine and threw me to the floor. He did this time and time again.”
After winning the California State Jujitsu Championships in Los Angeles in 1983, Wilson brought Beau out onto the mat, and they did a demonstration. The crowd went wild when Beau threw him in a flawless o-soto-garo (back leg take down). To everyone’s delight, Wilson promoted him to the rank of canine black belt.
Wilson combines a sense of the ridiculous with a sense of the dramatic. Such was in evidence on a TV segment that has become a staple of live-television “blooper” programs. In the 1984 piece, aired on a recent Bloopers program, Wilson is shown lifting the back leg of a horse to shoe it; he’s saying his lines when the animal shifts its weight and “cuts the longest fart in the history of TV. The hoof was so heavy I couldn’t drop it. I just stood there while this great smelly roar passed over my head.”
Wilson still had lessons to learn from dogs.
Six years after adopting Beau, Wilson was married. During one of the worst storms to hit Los Angeles in a century, Sharon, his wife, spotted a dog scrounging for food in an alley near her office. The pooch was a pathetic mess, Wilson says. She was malnourished, and exposure to the elements had caused her to lose all her body fur. Sharon, who could see the animal would never survive the storm, gathered her up and brought her home.
“We named her Little Orphan Annie. Vitamins, healthy food, and lots of TLC were the recipe for good health, and within a matter of weeks Annie regained her coat. She was a beautiful little dog, a sheltie-Pomeranian mix with the heart of a lion.” From her, Wilson learned the meaning of devotion.
For weeks the timid animal never made a sound and hid behind the sofa. She would only emerge to eat if everyone had left the room. Then one night as Wilson lay in bed, he heard a muffled “woof.”
“I looked over to see Annie staring at me as if to say, ‘Is it okay if I talk to you?’ ” Smiling, he rubbed her chin; for her part, she spent the rest of the night making up for her month of silence. “Annie knew she had a home, we bonded instantly, and from that night on she never left my side.”
Beau liked and trusted everybody while Annie was wary of strangers. She took on the role of protector. In that regard, Wilson said, she saved Beau’s life and years later would save Wilson’s.
Normally he had the dogs on a leash, but one day he opened the door and Beau jogged down the steps and was waiting by the pool when a giant rottweiler appeared from nowhere and charged. Wilson screamed for his dog to run, but Beau just sat there, tail wagging.
“I was taking the steps four at a time, but I knew I’d never get there in time. Suddenly Annie flew down the stairs and rammed the rottweiler in the ribs with her head as he was preparing to attack Beau. The blow sent the huge animal into the pool. Annie continued her assault and chased him from the courtyard.”
Years later, Wilson came down with a serious case of Hong Kong flu. Now divorced, he was alone with Beau and Annie when his kidneys failed. He collapsed before he could get to the phone.
“I lay on the floor dying. Beau plopped down next to me and was licking my face, but Annie went to the front door and began to cry. Her voice sounded more human than like a dog’s.”
Eventually her wailing caught the attention of a neighbor, Wilson said, who peered into the window and saw him on the floor. She called an ambulance, and Wilson received treatment in the nick of time. He credits this to Annie.
In 1984 Terry Wilson took a job in San Diego as host of PM Magazine. At about the same time Annie caught pneumonia and began to suffer from an enlarged heart. The veterinarian taught him how to use IVs, and he turned his tiny apartment into a hospital ward. He came home three times a day to treat the dog, but it was a battle he could not win. Annie died in 1985. For years, since his divorce, Wilson and the dogs had been the Three Musketeers. Now with Annie gone, Beau became what Wilson described as “my reason for living.” They were inseparable.
Beau went completely blind at 19; by then he was already deaf. Wilson said he became his “seeing eye” human.
“My old friend still enjoyed a good quality of life. We took walks together, he went to the studio with me, and hide-and-seek replaced our judo workouts. He used his nose like radar to find me. There wasn’t any place I could hide where he couldn’t sniff me out.”
Beau turned 21 and his body continued to give out. Wilson’s friends said the animal was only staying alive for him, and as much as he didn’t want to believe them, he knew they were right. Beau was having fits and seizures so severe his joints would dislocate with each violent convulsion.
“For more than two decades he had been the emotional glue that held me together. Now I had to be strong for him. I knew what had to be done. I cradled his twitching body and cried unashamedly as the veterinarian began the euthanasia process. Moments later Beau went limp in my arms.”
Wilson went to pieces over Beau’s death. He abandoned his career and retreated to Moto-Tu-Pu, a small atoll near Bora-Bora in the South Pacific. A couple of years passed.
“Then one night under a full moon it dawned on me that what Sleepy, Beau, and Annie had taught me was being wasted as long as I sulked in the Pacific.”
Wilson’s 13-year marriage had ended in divorce, but his dogs taught him what companionship was meant to be.
“And they taught me how to be forgiving.”
Wilson returned to America. He settled first in Dallas, where he was an executive producer at Fox TV. Later he returned to San Diego, where today he’s a freelance producer and writer. His apartment complex does not allow pets. “That’s the only reason I want to have a home, so I can have another dog.”
In the meantime he writes for Pet Life magazine, works for animal rights, and awaits his next dog and the lessons he needs to learn.