On the day of his interview for “Leaders Among Us,” Peter Gregory was on a step ladder under the marquee of Carbondale’s Varsity Center, putting mortar between decorative stones with his hands.
It’s something he doesn’t have to do or wants credit for, but it is something he wants to do. He says he simply does the work. He’s been a member of the board of directors of The Varsity Center for six months and on Carbondale’s Science Center for four years, putting in about 40 hours a week for both organizations — all as a volunteer.
“I am very flexible. I see what needs to be done and I make the changes I need to make,” Gregory, 55, said. “I don’t want to be involved in the paperwork, that’s why we have executive directors. I get to do what I want to do. It is better for me, at this point in my life, to come in to nonprofits and show up every day. There needs to be a deep and lasting relationship between the executive director and staff and the board of directors. The way you do that is to show up every day.”
When he shows up, he takes on whatever needs to be done. He says he views life as a series of tasks.
“I don’t really work. I show up and do projects,” he said. For him, life has been a variety of projects.
Gregory first moved to Carbondale when he was 10. His father was a math professor at Southern Illinois University. After graduating from Carbondale Community High School, he earned a degree in computer science from SIU in 1984.
“I went to Silicon Valley and started reading the San Jose Mercury News. Every Monday, they printed about tech companies going public or starting something new,” he said. “I started getting it in my brain that I could do that. It was the availability of hope.”
He says he worked at a variety of “terribly-run” startup companies, eventually deciding to go into management. After getting laid off by Digital Equipment Company, he went back two months later as a consultant for the company — at twice the salary. That led to consulting on a specialize project for Microsoft which led to the formation of his own company, BSQUARE. It was finally his chance to start something of his own, and it worked. A few years later, the company went public, and instantly created 50 millionaires among employees.
He sold the company at age 37, becoming, in his words, “happily and gainfully unemployed,” and soon came to the realization that he didn’t have to start another company or work 80 hours per week any more.
“A philosopher would say that I turned toward meaning at that point,” he said. “Now a lot of what I am doing is good for me and it may be good to for the community.”
Returning to Carbondale with his family, he worked with the Office of Economic and Regional Development at SIU to establish a business plan competition and started an online art gallery and retailer.
After moving to Corvallis, Oregon, in 2007 and going through a divorce, he later returned again to Carbondale and was invited to a fundraiser for the Science Center. It piqued his interest and soon was named to a spot on the board. He now serves as chairman of the board.
“I’ve been president of the board of the Science Center for five years and I’m invisible there. I like that. I don’t need the credit. I don’t care if anyone knows who I am.”
Armed with an awareness of the area’s growing arts population, he began working to promote artisans as well.
“I want to take my talents and go and focus on things like the great art department we have at the Science Center and a variety of things at the Varsity, where we have what I believe is the largest underutilized resource for economic development in Carbondale. Arts are usually not my thing; I’m a geek, but I see things happening here. This is an economic and social resource that will make Carbondale a better place.”
Gregory sees himself not just as a supporter of local not-for-profits, but as a business leader who lends his hand to worthwhile causes.
"You can’t be a business leader drinking at the 19th hole, you can’t be business leader watching your Facebook feed or watching TV, you have to be a business leader and do things,” he said.
And if that means slamming mortar between decorative rocks, he is willing to do it.
“This is my hobby. This is good for me and hopefully, for the community.”