David Wiser's story of hope
CINCINNATI -- There was never a good time to tell them. How do you tell your kids something like this? Perhaps now it all would make sense: why Dad drank too much in college; why he quit the baseball team at Dartmouth; why the stories of how he met their mother start with David Wiser as charming as can be, handsome and young and successful, but then he gets shot down repeatedly by the object of his affections, because she knew, even then, that something just wasn't right.
But it all worked out. That's all they needed to know -- at least until now. David Wiser and Elizabeth Moore fell in love, had three kids, and held them close. They armed them with lessons. If someone looks scary to you, they'd tell their kids, run away. Their oldest, Sara Kate, heard that when she was 3. Overprotective? Maybe. The couple preferred to call it "unapologetically vigilant."
But see, these kids have turned out fine. Sara Kate is the old soul of the family. Eighteen going on 30, she's the one her friends turn to when they have problems. When she was 7, she made a ceramic plaque that said, "Love is in this family." It still hangs on the front door of their unpretentious and crammed east Cincinnati home on Mount Lookout, a house they've lived in for 20 years, not because they couldn't afford to upgrade, but because it's comfortable and it's all the kids have known.
Their middle child is Emily. She's 16, three years older than their son, Sam. Emily plays on an elite soccer team, but since she tore her ACL, she's been home watching too much "Law & Order." It makes her more inquisitive.
On June 19, Wiser decided it was time. The final horrifying details of Jerry Sandusky's child molestation trial were playing out in a courtroom in Pennsylvania. Eight victims had bravely told their stories, and Wiser, in the months after the Sandusky revelation, felt compelled to tell his own story. It's about a young man who confronted another alleged child molester 20 years ago, taking down one of the most prestigious youth baseball programs in the state of Minnesota. It's about forgiveness, 10 years of healing and saying goodbye to the boogeyman.
That's the thing Wiser wanted people to know, that victims can overcome the seemingly insurmountable abyss of sexual abuse and live a good life. But if Wiser was going to accomplish this, he first had to tell his kids. He picked a Tuesday night, in the middle of a late dinner, to call a family meeting, and immediately, Emily asked a bunch of panicked questions. Is Mom pregnant? Is she in trouble?
Over the course of three hours, Wiser told them everything. He pulled out a crackly old videotape he'd been hiding for 18 years. On it was a story that had jolted the Twin Cities two decades earlier. The tape played, and all of a sudden there was their dad, wearing a wire in an investigative story for Minneapolis TV station KSTP, asking Gary Downing, a coach he long admired, why he had sexually abused him.
Wiser's daughters immediately boiled with anger. Sara Kate and Emily started swearing at the TV.
"Douchebag!" they yelled at Downing, who declined interview requests for this story.
On the other side of the table, Wiser's youngest child was silent. Sam is the spitting image of his dad, right down to his closely cropped hair, blue eyes and smile. "Mini Me" is what people used to call young Sam when he stood next to Wiser.
On this particular night, the boy had just come home from a baseball game he'd lost 9-8, a game that frustrated him just like losses used to eat at his dad. Sam was sitting at the table in his pajamas, freshly showered, completely floored. Wiser looks at Sam and occasionally sees himself. Wiser thought about it months ago, when he started helping as an assistant coach for his boy's team and watched the kid run around the field with the innocence that comes when you're 13 and playing baseball.
Sam is the same age his dad was when the boogeyman came.
he old news release said more than 725 kids put in applications to try out for the Minnesota Little Gophers select baseball team in the spring of 1978, but only "16 fine lads" were good enough to make it. The boys who made this cut would go places they'd never been before -- to Puerto Rico, Canada and California. Sure, their parents would plunk down thousands of dollars in fees, but it all would be worth it. The Little Gophers would play more than 70 games in one long summer.
When a neighborhood friend approached David Wiser with the ad in the Minneapolis Tribune for tryouts, Wiser hesitated. He didn't think he was good enough. But then he got the letter with the box checked for, "Recommended to advance to the next stage of tryouts," and his confidence grew. When he made the team, it was a huge deal. The Little Gophers were big time.
In statements gathered in a pretrial deposition for a civil suit in 1994, Gary Downing said the program was started in part at the urging of Hubert Humphrey, a beloved Minnesota politician who served as vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson. Humphrey was a proud Minnesotan. He believed Minnesota kids could compete with anybody in the world, Downing said in the deposition, and a baseball team with the best players in the state would prove it. So in the mid-1970s, Downing held his first tryouts for the Little Gophers, and soon the team was traveling the globe and accumulating trophies.
The Little Gophers wore baseball hats with the familiar giant "M" logo that the University of Minnesota used. Downing was a longtime campus police officer who helped promote the big league vibe with news releases and practices on a baseball field on the Minnesota campus.
Downing, who was in his 30s, poured most of his free time into the Little Gophers program. He left nothing to chance. During tryouts, the coach, according to Wiser, held lengthy sit-down interviews with each boy. "Tell me about your family " was one of the questions that dominated Wiser's meeting.
"It was a one-on-one interview," Wiser said. "But what I'd call it now is a profiling session."
In that meeting, Wiser gave hints of the disconnect he felt with his dad, of his insecurities, of his need to bond with a father figure.
Wiser's dad was a child of the Great Depression, a hard-working man who didn't show much emotion. Chuck Wiser was not the type who said, "I love you," just before he hung up the phone. He wasn't wired that way. David Wiser was just the opposite.
In some ways, Wiser was flattered that Downing took an interest in his thoughts and dreams. He needed that. Wiser was a hard worker on the baseball field, smart and tough. He caught for the Little Gophers and occasionally pitched. When he hit a home run in a victory against a team from Japan, the local newspaper did a write-up. Wiser kept all the clips. He wanted to remember that summer.
But once the team hit the road, he had to forget. Downing, in pre-trial depositions, said he didn't want to share hotel rooms with the boys when they traveled but that he was forced to because of cost-cutting measures. Wiser was placed in Downing's room. When he first heard the hotel assignments, Wiser was thrilled. He felt special and hand-picked. He had no idea what would happen next. Wiser said the coach made him sleep naked with him. He said Downing asked for massages and on at least one occasion rubbed the boy in his genital area.
And then Wiser said he repressed the memories, stored them in a file cabinet in his brain, because there was no way he could deal with letting them out. But in the months that followed, it was clear something had changed. He changed. Wiser grew up in a Catholic family but suddenly stopped going to Mass. He felt ashamed. He started drinking to numb the pain and clashed with authority figures.
But Wiser did not come across as a teen who was hurting. He sailed through high school, and this was no average high school. St. Thomas Academy was an all-boys military college prep school complete with uniforms, demerits and platoon squads. He finished second in his class, and captained the baseball and soccer teams. He was headed to Dartmouth to play baseball.
Still, those who knew him well could sense something was wrong. "It's not something that I could put my finger on," said Pat Mascia, a teammate of Wiser's at St. Thomas, "but there was a wall somewhere. As talented and as smart and popular as he was, there were some things he would do that would make you kind of scratch your head a little bit.
"We'd have to watch out for him here and there. Sometimes, he was a little self-destructive. He was a take-it-to-the-limit guy who liked to push the envelope."
There were times when Wiser wondered why he drank too much and went too far, why he felt worthless and different and didn't want to be alone. When he went to Dartmouth, he was constantly at odds with coach Mike Walsh. He'd mock the coach when Walsh was well within earshot. He'd mouth off to him and tune him out.
Wiser didn't see it then, but Walsh's authoritative personality and some of his mannerisms reminded him of Downing. And although Walsh never did anything to hurt him, Wiser couldn't take the subconscious reminders anymore.
He quit the team and gave up baseball, further perpetuating his college nickname, which was "Bud." Bud Wiser.
"I used to wonder, 'Why the hell is he throwing this all away?'" former Dartmouth teammate John Hommeyer said. "Looking back now, it all makes sense."
he first time he saw her was from the back of the room. It was a training session for Procter & Gamble's young marketing talent. Wiser and a buddy were scanning the room, trying to scope out the pretty girls, and a woman in the front kept raising her hand and answering all the questions. The buddy thought it was a turnoff. "Yeah," Wiser told his friend, "but she's kind of hot."
Elizabeth Moore was classy, wise and pretty, and had only minimal interest in Wiser. But the young man was persistent. He told himself that if he could market toothpaste and mouthwash, he sure as heck could market himself.
It was not a quick sell. For about a year, Wiser would see her in the hallway at work, and every time she walked by, his heart beat a little faster.
He asked her out, and she repeatedly said no. He bought an 18-foot Sea Ray just to impress her. One night, Moore finally agreed to go out because it was supposed to be a group thing -- Wiser fibbed about that and invited only her -- but also because, deep down, she was intrigued.
They listened to a Don Henley concert that night and talked until 3 a.m. Moore reached out to shake his hand, and he shook it back. He wanted more, but he knew this was different. He didn't want to mess it up.
They said goodbye, and he left the date thinking one thing: I am going to marry that girl.
Moore left thinking something else.
"I walked away saying, 'Well, I'll probably never go out with him again,'" she said.
She liked his sense of humor and his sweetness but knew he had issues. It wasn't something Moore could put her finger on; something just wasn't right.
He always seemed to be running, and it exhausted her. She wondered why he had problems with bosses. She wondered why he acted like someone he wasn't.
Eventually, Moore figured they didn't have enough in common to keep dating. She was an introvert; he was the life of the party. She started dating another guy. She found herself hoping that Wiser would call and ask her out.
After a short breakup -- Wiser insists to this day that they never really broke up -- the time apart helped Moore realize that he was the one. She was all-in. She didn't understand him, but she was all-in. She encouraged him to see a psychiatrist. Maybe a professional could explain the trust issues, the frenetic behavior and the conflicts with male authority figures.
Wiser did some research and found Dr. Louis Spitz. They began meeting once a week.
One morning before work, Wiser got out of the shower and started shaving in front of the bathroom mirror. Moore came up from behind and wrapped her arms around him.
"He literally turned gray," Moore said. "I thought he was going to pass out."
Suddenly, flashbacks exploded in front of that foggy mirror -- of a man grabbing a boy after he'd just stepped out of the shower. Wiser started to fall over. Moore grabbed him.
"It was like somebody just put a film in my head," Wiser said, "and I started seeing clips. You know, flashbacks to the coach."
Dr. Howard Fradkin, a psychologist who is the co-founder of MaleSurvivor, said it is common for sexual abuse survivors to forget all or part of the abuse they suffered. Often, Fradkin said, the memories won't come until a victim finally feels safe.
Wiser was getting there at that point in his life, finally in a relationship with love and security, finally opening up about his feelings.
Anything can act as a trigger, Fradkin said. The pattern of a sheet. Smells and sounds. When Moore grabbed Wiser in front of that mirror, he kept repeating the same thing.
"I can't believe what I'm seeing."
he did not know whether to touch him. She did not know whether a hug would make him squirm or feel sad. For months after that moment in the mirror, Moore questioned every move she made. She wanted to fix things for him. She knew she couldn't.
The first thing Wiser had to do was call Dr. Louis Spitz. He told Spitz that he had to see him quickly. They began to meet more frequently, three times a week, unpeeling the layers of his past 12 years. The sessions were intense. Every time a memory came back, Wiser had to work through shock, anger and sadness.
He would get so drained from the meetings that most nights he just wanted to go straight to bed. The therapy was expensive, but Wiser didn't want to claim any of the visits on his insurance. He didn't want to reveal any hints of weakness that might put his job in jeopardy.
There were days when plans were scrapped because Wiser was too sad to go out. There were days when things were almost normal. Thing is, it hadn't been "normal" for Wiser since that summer in 1978. He could not maintain normal relationships. He was consumed with a sense of hopelessness and didn't know why.
Since he was 13, Wiser had the same nightmare. It would cause him to wail like a ghost in his sleep, and he was so loud, even as an adult, that Moore used to have to wake him in the middle of the night. The boogeyman was chasing him.
"Were there days when it sucked to be us?" Moore said. "Yes. Would I have ever considered for a moment that I should fold? Oh, heck no.
"The only way out is through. You have to go through it. The grieving and the mourning and the crying of tears. You have to cry your tears. You have to do it as an adult for that child that you were. It's very strange and very hard. Watching him go through that was very, very hard."
On Aug. 31, 1991, they got married. Their reception was at the Omni Netherland Plaza, and about 300 family members and friends attended. None of them had any idea what the couple was going through.
Wiser approached therapy like he would a workout. He was fearless and worked hard at it. And when he believed he had a clear enough picture of what had happened, he knew he had to confront Downing.
Back in Minneapolis, his old coach was still running the Little Gophers, and that terrified Wiser. He didn't want any other boys to be abused.
Wiser called each of the local TV stations and told them his story, and two of them said no thanks. But Joel Grover, an investigative reporter at KSTP, was interested. They got to work, first spending months trying to track down nearly two decades of Little Gophers.
It was 1992, pre-Internet, so Wiser spent most of his nights racking up long-distance phone bills. Eventually, Wiser said, he and Grover found at least seven boys who said they'd been abused by Downing, too. Several of them were willing to go on camera and tell their stories.
Grover and Wiser agreed that the story would resonate more if Wiser could get Downing to admit that he had abused him. With trepidation, Wiser flew from Cincinnati to Minneapolis and asked Downing to meet at a Hardee's.
Cameras were hidden in the restaurant and the parking lot. Moore watched from a van, afraid, as her husband walked in, nerves jangled. This was the man Wiser, for years, had revered and feared, who, according to Moore, was described to her as a cross between a superhero and Darth Vader.
When he tried to imagine the meeting, Wiser wasn't sure whether he could stand looking at Downing. But he shook Downing's hand and took a seat across the table. In a calm voice, Wiser told Downing that he knew the coach slept with him naked. Wiser said he wanted to know why he made him do that.
"I guess I don't really look at it as anything," Downing said in the grainy video.
Wiser kept pressing. As they continued to talk, he went from nervous to empowered. He chastised Downing for taking pictures of nude boys. He asked whether the abuse had stopped. By the time the men got to the parking lot, Wiser was yelling at the coach, pointing a finger in his face.
"Gary, you had your arms and your legs wrapped around me," he told him. "Don't tell me you didn't touch me."
It was one of the biggest steps in his recovery process. Wiser said it was almost as if there was a transfer of power. For the first time, he felt as if he was in control and Downing was the broken one.
The two-part TV story rocked Minneapolis. The Little Gophers never fielded another team.
The statute of limitations had expired on possible criminal prosecution, but Wiser filed a civil lawsuit against Downing and the University of Minnesota, and the case dragged on for several years. In 1996, a Hennepin County jury found Downing liable for sexual abuse but said the university was not responsible for his conduct. In the case against Downing, the jury awarded Wiser $2.6 million.
Wiser never collected any of the money. His attorney was Jeff Anderson, a prominent St. Paul lawyer who is currently representing two Sandusky victims in a civil suit against Penn State and The Second Mile.
When the $2.6 million award came in, neither Wiser nor Anderson saw dollar signs. They knew Downing didn't have the money, and said the lawsuit was never about that anyway.
"It's more about power than it is about money," Anderson said. "It's not about sex, either. It's about power and the abuse of power. What I do, what I dedicate my life and my work to doing, is helping survivors like David Wiser recover their power.
"[They know] at the end of the day whatever happens with this case, win, lose, or draw, is that they've done something to protect other kids."
ary Downing, according to court depositions, was born on the Fourth of July in 1939. His father spent much of his life as a truck driver for Land O'Lakes, and when Gerald Downing became old and sick with multiple sclerosis, his son took care of him. In 1994, when Gary Downing testified in the civil case, he was living with his 77-year-old mother in the house he grew up in on 21st Avenue in Minneapolis.
Downing had never been married. And in the first 54 years of his life, at least, he hadn't had much time for dating women. He told the court that his only sexual relationships with women came when he was a young man in the Marines, when he drank a little and had "a little bit of fun."
An interest in law enforcement took him to the University of Minnesota, where he served as a campus cop for 27 years.
Asked why he became a coach -- Downing played several sports in high school -- he said he did it to help others.
"There's too many people today in this world," Downing said in the deposition, "that sit back on their haunches and (do) nothing and (do) a lot of complaining about things but don't have the initiative to go out and do anything to help these kids."
In both the deposition and the civil trial, Downing repeatedly denied that he sexually abused boys. He retired on July 5, 1993, amid the allegations, and slipped into oblivion. He stayed in the Twin Cities and has no known criminal record. He is now 73 and is listed as CEO of a patch company that is based out of his home in an upper-middle class suburb of Minneapolis. The company, according to a merchant website, makes emblems, badges and pins for police, schools and sports teams. Downing, reached Wednesday after not returning several messages, referred a reporter to his lawyer. The lawyer did not return messages.
After the civil case finally ended, Wiser said he never saw Downing again. He is no longer a dark and feared person in a young man's life. He is not even hated. Wiser eventually went back to church. One day, when the pastor delivered a message about forgiveness, Wiser stood up in front of the congregation at Crossroads Church and told his story.
And he forgave Gary Downing.
"It doesn't mean that I would want to go out and have beers with the guy," he said. "It doesn't mean I'm not conscious if he's still out there about what he might be doing. But I've forgiven him, and I do believe that everybody has good inside of them. Things get screwed up along the way."
iser was in Europe last month for work when the Jerry Sandusky verdict came on a Friday night. He was watching CNN in the middle of the night in Amsterdam when the breaking news appeared on his TV. He sent a text to a reporter.
Guilty, 45 counts? Bye-bye, Jerry
For the past eight months, Wiser has followed the Sandusky story closely. When it first broke, Wiser relived a lot of painful old memories. He knew there probably were dozens of men who, like him, had spent much of their lives dealing with the shame of sexual abuse. He became infuriated watching the Penn State students riot and rally around Joe Paterno when the coach was fired in November.
He sees what he believes are parallels between Penn State and the Little Gophers: a respected man in a revered program, a violation of trust and years of denials. If Wiser had his choice, he probably never would have told his kids about what happened to him. He didn't need to. He did everything he could to make sure his kids didn't live the childhood he did.
Wiser is the one who coordinates travel for his daughter's soccer team. He doesn't want any parent to worry about hotel accommodations or where their kids might sleep.
He and Elizabeth gave their first child a cellphone when she was in just the seventh grade, which was sort of rare six years ago. Perhaps it's no coincidence that it's the same grade Wiser was in when his whole life changed.
Wiser hears the stories of the Sandusky victims and knows the road they have ahead of them. He told his kids and is telling his story in the hopes that maybe one of the victims can find inspiration from it, in the hopes that they will be able to understand that they can still have everything. A successful career. A loving family. A "normal" life.
"It's not a quick fix," Moore said. "Even in those [early] days, when I knew things would get better, I never could've crafted in my imagination how great it is now. So for spouses and loved ones who walk out because they're tired of it, because it's exhausting, you've got to hang in there because of what you get on the other side. You're both so much stronger and so much better that it's worth the difficult ride."
In the days after Wiser told his kids, the family slipped back into normal routines. Sam played baseball. He asked his dad how a coach could do something like that to a kid. Wiser doesn't know.
Sam didn't know this, but his middle name -- Louis -- has a special meaning. He's named after Wiser's psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Spitz. That's how big an effect Spitz has had on the family.
And they didn't even know it. Sara Kate is working part time this summer at Dairy Queen and will be a freshman this fall at Carleton College. She calls her dad her best friend. She wasn't blown away by the news, because when she was a very small child, she heard that her dad was on "Oprah." Sara Kate always wondered why but didn't press. She trusted him to tell her someday if he saw fit.
"I have a more complete picture of my dad [now]," she said. "Maybe it sounds silly, but everything happens for a reason. I kind of look for the silver lining of a sucky situation and think about what's important. It made him a great role model.
"I kind of realize it made him the best dad in the world."