The Gift of Gil
Scores of Denverites have opened their lives to an autistic man named Gilbert Carpinelli with the hope of helping him out.
One year when Gilbert was very young, Gil and Vincent and Betty moved to Spokane, Washington. Betty knew a bit about farming, so they raised chickens. They were soft and fuzzy, and Gilly loved those baby chickens. He'd pick them up and pet them. He'd hold them to his lips and kiss them. He'd blow on their feathers. He'd say, "Soft chickens. Fuzzy!" I'm pretty sure that's why he calls everything fuzzy.—Rose Carpinelli, Gilbert's aunt, Arvada
A Sunday in north Denver, 1985. Gilbert, 21, was riding his bike near the intersection of Federal Boulevard and 37th Avenue in front of North Presbyterian church. A hymn emanated from the pipe organ and drifted outside on the breeze. Gil came upon the airy vibrations, dismounted his bicycle, and walked into the church, mid-worship. Following his ears, he proceeded straight up the center aisle toward the altar. The place was half full, and everyone inside could see Gil, but the service continued as if this had been rehearsed. It was a typical Gilbert moment: A crowd of strangers sized him up and decided to see how the scene would play out. Gil approached the altar, then walked over to the source of the music and pressed a cheek against the side of the organ, smiled big, and began petting the instrument. "Softy," he said. "Fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy!"
Dr. Bob Springs witnessed Gil's odd performance from the pews that Sunday. Bob had moved to Denver in 1969, and through his work at the West Side Neighborhood Health Center he had contact with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, a social services group that leaned heavily on the philosophy of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian-Jewish Auschwitz survivor and psychiatrist. Frankl was a big proponent of Eastern-style self-empowerment, of improving one's own life—and by extension the lives of others—through positive thinking and attitude change. In his seminal work, Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl writes, "The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself." Six years after Bob moved to Denver, Kate Collins was transferred from the Institute of Cultural Affairs' Cleveland office to the Denver location. Like Bob, she was a veteran civil rights activist and champion of the poor and underserved. Kate and Bob were both divorced with kids; two for him, four for her. Before long they were married with three kids of their own. Kate went to church in Park Hill; Bob went to North Presbyterian.
Gilbert returned to North Presbyterian the Sunday after his inaugural visit, and every Sunday after that. He befriended the pastor, and much of the congregation got to know Gil and his loud yet magnetic charm. Bob Springs liked Gil. One of his stepsons, Sean, was the same age. Sometimes Bob would tell Kate about Gilbert—about his unexpected performance at the altar, about how he always said "fuzzy" as way of showing affection. Bob and Kate laughed the way people do about things that are sad and sweet and make your stomach feel hollow and heavy.
About 10 or 12 years ago, Gilbert came into the Foreign Legion Hall at 42nd Avenue and Pecos Street and got up on stage with the band. He started singing Christmas carols, and we just got such a kick out of him. He's a good dancer, and I love dancing with him. He pets my hair and says "fuzzy," which was strange at first, but that's just Gil. He doesn't mean anything by it. Singing with the band is a regular thing for him. They'll say, "Gilbert to the bandstand," and he'll get on stage and play the maracas and sing. Mexican music is his favorite. He always sings that song "Hey Baby, Que Paso?" and everyone in the room just loves it. And they love Gil. He calls me and my husband Mom and Dad. He has so many moms and dads.—Gladys Montoya, member, American Legion, Post 204, Denver
Kate Springs' son Sean was the same age as Gilbert. The firstborn, Sean was handsome and intelligent and thoughtful. After high school, Sean studied writing and history in Washington, D.C., but left college before he'd completed his first year and enlisted in the Navy. After his stint in the armed services, Sean returned to D.C., where he did mental health evaluations for the homeless. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles in the early '90s to try writing professionally. He waited tables at a fancy restaurant at night, and a few days a week he looked after an autistic man. Whether by nature or by nurture, Sean was just like Kate; he improved himself and the world around him by looking after others in need. He eventually wound up in New York City, where he spent his early and mid-30s as a struggling playwright, and fought intermittent battles with depression. Kate and Bob knew that Sean had sought therapy, and had taken medication for his depression, but the Springs didn't realize how bad things truly were. Kate was on a road trip to Wyoming in August 2002 when she got the call on her cell phone. It was one of her daughters. Sean is gone, she said. He's gone. Sean was 36 when he took his own life.
At the time of Sean's death, Gilbert was still a mere acquaintance to the Springs. He'd been making his daily rounds through Denver, culminating each week with an appearance at North Presbyterian. His mother, Betty, had died a few years earlier, and Gil and Vincent moved to Section 8 housing in Five Points. The arrangement wasn't right for a guy like Gil. There were drugs and booze around the house, paid for with Gilbert's disability checks. By February 2003, Vincent had brought in a roommate to offset costs. One night, things got out of control. Only the three men who lived there know the precise details, but this much is certain: There was an argument between Gil and the roommate over some money—Gil's money. The roommate came unhinged and assaulted Gil, like the children who'd pushed him around back in school. Vincent stood by and did nothing to protect his son. Gilbert ran out of the house, hopped on his bike, and rode across town. The next morning, North Presbyterian pastor Heidi McGinness opened her door and found Gilbert, then 37 years old, huddled on the porch, shivering in the February cold.
North Presbyterian's parishioners agreed to put Gilbert on a housing rotation, each family taking him in for a few weeks at a time. He landed at the Springs' house around April of 2003. "We just knew it wasn't fair for Gilbert to be passed around like that," says Kate. "He needed stability. He needed security and a family and a support system. In the past, I've always given my time to bigger causes, like fighting poverty, or the civil rights movement. But there's something about this individual, Gilbert, that calls forth the kindness in people. He has a kind of magnetism," she said.
In fall of 2003, the Springs bought a Sunnyside bungalow for Gilbert, where he now lives with a caretaker, who's also a member of North Presbyterian. "Without this kind of arrangement," Bob Springs wrote to Denver Housing Authority, "Gilbert would need to be placed in an institutional setting which would be less safe for him. I strongly recommend that you facilitate this arrangement."
Vincent was evicted after the incident in Five Points. For his part, he let the Springs know that his son would be better off under their care. No one has heard from him since. He's unlisted, and his name doesn't show up in the database for the Denver coroner's office. The Springs, and Aunt Rose, want Vincent to know that Gilbert is doing well.