“God knows people, no religion.” This was a family saying in the childhood home of Nathaniel Gillon.
The philosophy of religion in action stayed with Gillon, a guidance counselor and teacher at Marquette University High School. Since joining the school staff in 1990, Gillon, a member of All Saints Parish, Milwaukee, has introduced young African American and Hispanic men to MUHS. Through his work, the school’s minority enrollment has reached 20 percent.
He was recently honored for his commitment to living the Gospel and the effects these efforts have had on MUHS and the city of Milwaukee.
Gillon is the inaugural recipient of the Nathaniel Gillon Cura Personalis. A Latin phrase meaning “Care for the whole person,” this annual award will now bear Gillon’s name.
Born into the African American Episcopal Church, Gillon’s first experience with Catholicism came in his kindergarten classroom at St. Francis of Assisi School, Milwaukee. His mother needed to work full days to make ends meet, so she found a school where she could send her son to full-day kindergarten. This service met an important need for Gillon’s family and to him, was an excellent example of how important it is for the church to meet its people through the needs of the community.
In fourth grade, Gillon converted to Catholicism, and his family soon followed suit. The transition into learning all the rituals of the church was a slow progression. Gillon knew he had the full support of his family when they continued to rise at 5:30 a.m. so that he could serve Mass at St. Francis.
Gillon attended high school at St. Elizabeth Parish, Messmer Connect, Milwaukee, and St. Francis Brothers’ School, Mount Calvary, which eventually merged with St. Lawrence Seminary. He earned master’s degrees in Catholic school administration and counseling from the University of San Francisco and the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
He was the first African American lay principal of Holy Angels Grade School in Milwaukee.
In addition to his duties in the classroom and as a counselor, he also serves as the liaison to the parent network.
“I’m not only responsible for educating these students,” he said, “I’m responsible for ensuring that they create within themselves the genuineness to give back and become agents in doing so.”
The challenge of a Catholic, according to Gillon, is to be alive in God and soulful.
“Faith is my nucleus,” he said. “In life and in the classroom, I want the students to connect with God and for their faith to go to another level – bring their faith to life so they are alive in God.”
Gillon assists his students in bringing their faith to life through listening, teaching and counseling. He believes these three things can help someone move closer to God.
He advocates for those who are struggling, those whose basic needs aren’t being met. He does so because he knows that spiritual needs cannot be met until one is no longer concerned with everyday necessities.
“When someone is struggling,” he said, “it is too difficult to feel a connectedness with God. To be successful, basic needs must be met.”
With around 10 percent of the student population at MUHS living under the poverty line, Gillon’s desire to do whatever it takes to help young men succeed is needed now more than ever as he supports young men from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds.
Young men recognize the advocate they have in Gillon. Upon receiving the Nathaniel Gillon Cura Personalis Award, several of his past and present students weighed in on the impact Gillon has had on their lives.
“Without Mr. Gillon I would not have made it through MUHS,” said former student Juan Hurtado, a 2001 graduate. “Mr. Gillon embodies the true definition of being a man for others. He would give you the shirt off his back, the last dollar he had, and give up his lunch so that you wouldn’t go hungry. This is how he reflects Christ.”
Over the years Gillon has developed some strong and lasting relationships with the young men whom he has mentored. He has several “adopted sons,” and throughout the years his home has become a safe haven for many young men.
His favorite memories include the many years his home served as the place for several young men to ring in the New Year in a safe environment. Unmarried, Gillon is an adopted father to three and according to Kriss Schulz, MUHS vice president of communications and planning, “Many consider Nathaniel their dad. I am told on Father’s Day, his mailbox is full.”
His current students are also aware of Gillon’s devotion to their success. Gillon advises a group of freshmen through the PAY program. PAY, “Positive Alternatives for Youth,” is a program to assist freshmen in transitioning into MUHS. Gillon serves as a PAY program faculty leader and the group’s academic advisor. He works with the students on issues ranging from course selection to problems with stress, time management and teachers.
“He’s quiet, but has so much to say. He always finds the best in us,” said Patrick Tighe, a sophomore in fall.
“He would never put us off if we have a problem,” said Ignacio Sanchez, also an incoming sophomore. “He is always willing to meet us face to face.”
Not being one to “shout from the mountain tops,” Gillon is described by students, alumni and faculty as a quiet and humble man. When asked about the honor of having an award named after his dedication and service, Gillon said, “To receive this award is awesome and humbling. It’s a great way to get the word out about the Micah fund, get the parents involved and dream.”
The Micah student assistance fund, named after the prophet Micah, was established in 2004 to assist students with financial need with incidentals important to their success at MUHS, such as lunch, transportation, books or emergency funds.
This fund was established in the spirit of Gillon’s dedication to minority students and his belief in basic needs being met as the first step to success.
He explained it’s important to figure out what the needs of the students are and then meet them in a “responsible and respectful manner.”
“The school has students at the very top and the very bottom of the tax bracket,” said Jesuit Fr. John Belmonte, outgoing principal. “Mr. Gillon is bridging the gap between them in hopes to bridge the gap in the community.”
The Micah fund does just that by placing money in students’ lunch accounts and providing them with bus passes and books as needed – without setting them apart or drawing attention to who receives the funds. It is the school’s response to the prophet Micah’s call “to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Gillon’s passion for creating a more diverse environment at MUHS comes from the knowledge that many of the school’s student leaders go on to become leaders in the community. Currently, several graduates of MUHS hold leadership roles in the city of Milwaukee, including Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Gillon believes to diversify the student population is to diversify the leadership of Milwaukee’s future.
“He is breaking the cycle of poverty,” said Fr. Belmonte. “While other people talk about doing it, Nathaniel Gillon does it. It is him. He is the bridge for many of these kids to the other side.”