Independence resident Ross Wiley responds to many names and greetings: “Ross,” “Roscoe,” “hey dude,” “the food-buying guy” and, of course, “the walking man.” Following this, the people he passes on his long daily walks often ask a familiar series of questions, including what he’s carrying in his signature backpack and if he has a spare cigarette. Once, someone asked if he needed a date.
None of these remarks shock Wiley, and he’ll always stop to reply. His talkative nature has led to discussions over the meals Wiley buys for those in need, mentorships and even frank conversations about topics like mental illness, disabilities and grief. On his walks, he’s stopped to roll trash cans up people’s driveways and to console a man sprawled out in a ditch. However, this openness has only emerged in recent years.
In fact, Wiley says few of his friends and acquaintances would believe he spent 10 years confined to his house, due to agoraphobia and depression brought on by his wife’s sudden death. After a weight loss surgery and three months of recovery, it was walking -- and the realizations it inspired -- that led to a transformation.
“At first, I started walking from my couch to my mailbox, and I’d have to stop and rest twice,” Wiley recalled. “Then, I started walking to the end of the block. Eventually, I could make it three miles, then seven miles. Last year, I walked 25 miles in one day.”
A trek to George Owens Nature Park, which nature enthusiast Wiley has since dubbed his second home, helped build this habit. One day, he remembered driving by the site with his sister, city volunteer Laurie Dean Wiley, and made the mile-long journey on foot. Wiley explored the trails, observed bugs and other creatures and began making connections with the park’s staff. In addition to his struggles with mental health, Wiley also suffers from severe short-term memory loss, so he took pictures to preserve these moments. In total, he spent nine and a half hours at George Owens that day.
That day, Wiley’s sister worried about his extended time away from home. In the time since then, she’s recognized its healing ability.
“It’s like he got his faith back,” Laurie said. “He’s just alive again. I have my big brother back.”
Wiley agrees. After years of Laurie caring for him, he now gives back by doing her laundry and acting as a “maid for life,” and even takes her along on some of his adventures.
“I got over my fears by going to George Owens almost daily,” Wiley said. “I came in and said, ‘Hi, my name is Ross.’ I had never done that before in my life.”
Someone asked him to volunteer. Wiley will be the first to concede that his deeds are small, yet he sees the difference that they yield. He plucks plastic and other garbage from bird nests, warns people when the park is closing and helps disabled visitors on and off hayrides through the fall. Someday, he dreams of rebuilding a damaged park bridge with Matt Mader, a young employee he mentors.
“I love his stories and his constant smile,” Mader said. “He’s an earnest guy. I always stop what I’m doing and talk to him.”
It’s this lesson that Wiley has carried from George Owens Nature Park to elsewhere in the community.
“Sometimes just stopping to say ‘hello’ will change someone’s day,” Wiley emphasized. “I know it did for me. It’s nice to know someone is paying attention to you.”