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My Friend Gary: A Christmas Story

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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

- Margaret Mead

He was, by his own assessment, a hippie. Gary had graduated with an advanced degree from Harvard and got on his motorcycle, which he also conceded, was not the best use of his educational investment. We were all wandering America in the sixties and early seventies and the roads and their soft shoulders were populated with the nation's disquieted young looking for something we could not name. Gary was one of us.

But he was also something entirely different. He had grown up on a ranch in the Hill Country outside of Kerrville, Texas in the most conservative part of a most conservative state. If he ever settled down Gary was going to inherit a part of a very successful family endeavor. Unfortunately for his family's expectations, he had been to the intellectual centers of his country and he had heard the rhetoric of his generation about changing the world and doing something beyond making a dollar and retiring to luxury. Gary didn't know it then and he humbly denies it now but he was to become one of the few of us who actually lived up to our long-haired dogma. He would, indeed, change the world.

First, though, he fell in love. And the motorcycle leaned homeward to the familiar limestone hills cut by the sweet, cold waters of the Guadalupe River. Gary and his young wife began their life and soon had a son. But there was something wrong about it all for the girl he had married and she left him with the baby. While Gary was home caring for his child and struggling to figure out what was next, a neighbor stopped by to ask him to look after her toddler while she looked for work. She never returned. Gary had two infants and little idea what to do but he wondered if these kinds of situations arose in Kerrville, what was it like in the big city?

Which led to an idea. Instead of waiting until he became an heir, he went to his father and asked for an early inheritance. After much debate, his father agreed to give him a gift of 500 acres of land near Ingram, just outside of Kerrville. In return, he had to surrender claim to a future as a major landowner in a booming state. His father had trouble accepting the fact that his son wanted to build a youth ranch for abused and neglected children. But he would be proud today if he could see what his son has done on those rocky ledges.

Gary knocked on doors and raised money from foundations and individuals; he did not relent. Slowly, he built dorms and grandparents' cottages and a recreation hall and an artistic center and a charter school along Brushy Creek. People volunteered. An entire community gave of itself. The Hill Country Youth Ranch was certified by the state and the most broken of Texas' children were sent to the facility to see if there might be a way for them to be healed. Nobody expected that to happen; except for my friend Gary. These were little boys and girls who had been sexually abused in their baby cribs or had watched their mother's boyfriend shoot her in the face. They had been passed around and abused by foster parents and others who were supposed to love them. But nobody did, until they got to the Hill Country Youth Ranch and met my friend Gary.

For thirty years now, Gary Priour and his wife Carol have been loving, nurturing, and caring for broken boys and girls. The ranch has been home to more than a thousand children who, instead of becoming drug addicts and criminals and other kinds of suffering souls, have turned into teachers and truckers, soldiers and Marines, business people and nurses and fulfilled and happy adults who love their own children and are raising them to make a better world. A few have faltered. But not because they have not been loved or didn't know better but because some tragedies can never be overcome. Even those, though, have acknowledged they would not have ever had a chance at normalcy without the Hill Country Youth Ranch.

About ten years ago, a former longshoreman and high school football coach, Ed Brune and is wife Trudy were driving through the Hill Country and stopped at a thrift store operated by the ranch. They asked a few questions and later got a tour of the ranch. In the days when Ed was making a modest living with his back muscles on the Houston Ship Channel, a nephew had asked him to invest precious dollars in a start up company in Austin. Ed's few thousand helped to launch a multi-million dollar global corporation and he and Trudy discovered in the youth ranch a place where they wanted to invest their earnings. They have given millions to build the children a library and charter school and housing.

The Brune's generosity came in the wake of a grand and unexpected gift from Miss Oma Bell Perry. A direct descendant of the daughter of Stephen F. Austin's sister and a member of a family of original Texas colonists, Ms. Perry's parents had homesteaded at the headwaters of the Frio River in a majestic canyon of waterfalls and glittering sunsets. She deeded the 7000 acres over to Gary to build an intergenerational village of learning and healing. The day she turned over her homeland to a greater purpose, Ms. Perry was sitting in a place of honor beneath two giant live oaks leaning out over the water. She had planted them decades ago with her sisters when their family had moved into the river's loving arms. The great trees grew as symbols of hope and she watched as two other little girls from the youth ranch turned the earth to plant trees of their own to mark the beginning of the ranch's new life.

That day, as the live oak and cottonwood leaves danced and glittered in the sun and wind, I heard my friend Gary tell the gathered community that he sensed a gathering of angels. I thought him a bit overly sensitive at the time, if not possessing a fine sense of the poetic. Through the years, I have come to learn that he was right; his angels circle around his work and guide his every choice. Known now as the Big Springs Ranch, visitors see children floating the river in their free time and smiling on their brief walks to their school on a limestone ledge where Texas' first settlers surveyed this magic valley. The locals have come to refer to the ranch as a "Place of a Thousand Angels."

In my years and travels as a journalist, I have met presidents and prime ministers, famous actors and musicians, scientists and poets; these are people whose work matters and it shapes our history. And I have listened to the interpretations of orators trying to explain to me what Jesus and other spiritual prophets taught us about the moral way to live. But I have forgotten all of those experts and what they said and I tend to dismiss many historical figures and most of what they did. But I will never forget my friend Gary. And every Christmas when we are supposed to focus on peace and doing for each other, I will think about him and his humility and his great work in a troubled world. And I will believe again in hope.

Anyone wishing to make contributions to the Hill Country Youth Ranch may do so by reaching them at: Hill Country Youth Ranch Main phone: 830-367-2131 Main e-mail: feedback@youth-ranch.org P. O. Box 67 Personnel: 830-367-6167 Personnel: contact@youth-ranch.org Ingram, Texas 78025 Fax: 830-367-6108 Development: 830-367-6161