The photographs that covered the walls of James Gasco’s Washington Court apartment expressed his love for his tribe and the desire to help his fellow man.
Recent Central Michigan University graduate Jeffrey Smith remembers the late nights working on projects with Gasco, which were mostly inspired early on in that very same apartment. They were partners during Smith’s first few journalism classes at CMU.
When Gasco was found dead in his apartment on Monday, Sept. 9, Smith and others at CMU were shocked by the death of a student who seemed to have a lot to offer his community as both a writer and a photographer.
“We had to buddy up for class, and I chose him as my buddy,” Smith said. “I was fresh into my CMU experience. I know he’s an older student, but I connected with him like I would with any other student.”
Smith said he worked closely with Gasco in photography, helping him learn the equipment, often over home-cooked meals, courtesy of the 59-year-old graduate student.
“We helped each other out,” Smith said. “We’re all pretty close in the photography department. He was very hospitable, very kind. He’d cook me dinner.”
Smith recalled a capstone project he and Gasco worked on together about Native Americans in higher education. Gasco was a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, in Petoskey.
From there, he took the project to a whole new level, always pushing for a better outcome.
Photography instructor Kent Miller said Gasco’s passion for his people was inherent in his work and future goals. Miller signed Gasco’s photojournalism major and taught three of the photography classes Gasco took at CMU.
“He wanted to be able to take his skills learned here back to his tribe to help the youth,” Miller said. “For a guy his age, he was just really enthused about being a great journalist. I really miss him.”
Miller said he witnessed a lot of growth in Gasco’s photography and communication during his time at CMU, especially during his last couple semesters.
“He was one of us. It is a huge loss because of what he was,” Miller said. ”He wanted to go back home and tell the stories of the people where he grew up.”
According to Miller, Gasco had plans to either find or create a tutoring program for Native Americans in his tribe and to encourage his fellow Odawa to get a college degree.
“I just think he cared a lot about other people,” Miller said. “Even if he had financial troubles of his own, he always made time to help those less fortunate than he was.”
Gasco was a regular at the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen in Mount Pleasant. Director Genny Sobaski remembered him as a friendly and compassionate patron and said the kitchen expressed their sorrow in a Patron Saint prayer before Tuesday’s meals.
“He came quite regularly to have lunch,” she said. “I was very shocked to hear of his passing. He was more mature than most students who come here, very kind. We’re going to miss him. We’re all in shock.”
Perry senior Kylee Tolliver recalls Gasco’s bright smile from across the room as she would arrive to their creative writing class.
She said his critiques were always constructive, and that one of Gasco’s best highlights was how he encouraged honesty in his classmates’ work.
“He wanted everyone’s work to come from the soul, because he wrote from the soul,” she said. “Whenever I’d look up, if he caught my eye, he’d always smile at me.”