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Area native on Obama’s fiscal team

Family, former teachers proud of JHS graduate

May 9, 2009
By MICHAEL ANICH/The Leader-Herald

JOHNSTOWN - Harry J. Wilson scored 100 percent on his American history Regents exam at Johnstown High School. Twenty years later, the Johnstown native is making some history of his own - as a top financial adviser to President Barrack Obama.

Valedictorian of the Johnstown High School class of 1989, Wilson now is 37, a resident of Scarsdale, Westchester County, and an occasional visitor to the White House.

He confirmed Thursday he is working as a senior adviser for the U.S. Treasury Department under Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, a former president of Harvard University and now the director of the White House's National Economic Council.

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Wilson has been behind the scenes of some of this spring's major developments in the U.S. auto industry.

"I generally spend three days a week in Washington, two days a week in Michigan and weekends at home with my family," he said.

Wilson said he's been very busy as a senior member of Obama's auto industry task force, which was in Detroit the last two weeks making headlines. The task force has been trying to sort out General Motors' financial problems, and Wilson and his team helped broker the Chrysler bankruptcy deal.

"Our team is bipartisan," said Wilson, a Republican. "I look at it as our country needs as many good people as it can get, and that is more important than the party."

Geithner and Summers co-chair Obama's auto task force, and Wilson said he's one of four "senior people" on the team.

"We all do different things," Wilson said.

He said he's overseeing the restructuring of GM and Chrysler as well as finance companies such as GMAC.

Wilson said he has met with Obama two or three times in the White House.

"He's very smart and very thoughtful and very good at soliciting input from everyone," he said of Obama. "He's very charming."

Wilson, a former hedge fund executive, started work for the Treasury Department in March at the request of Steve Rattner, Obama's lead adviser on the auto industry crisis.

Wilson's relatives and former teachers and classmates remember Wilson as ambitious and intelligent.

"He was president of his class for four years," Johnstown High School Principal Michael Beatty said. "He was a terrific leader. He was an absolute go-getter."

Indeed, members of his graduating class named Wilson "most likely to succeed."

Beatty, who was a social studies teacher at JHS back in 1989, said he remembers Harry Wilson as a strong student and a "staunch Republican."

City resident Pete Wilson, Harry Wilson's uncle, said he's very proud of him. Pete Wilson used to run the former Rainbow Restaurant in Johnstown.

He said his nephew left the Johnstown area after he graduated and made his mark in the business world.

Harry Wilson is the son of Jim Wilson, now a Chelmsford, Mass., resident. Jim Wilson was a bartender at the Rainbow for 50 years before moving to the Bay State.

Harry Wilson said he doesn't make it to Johnstown much anymore since his father moved to Massachusetts.

The Wilson family has been involved in local Republican politics for many years, and the Rainbow - now called the Townhouse - has been the site of Fulton County Republican Party headquarters for many years on election nights.

Pete Wilson said his nephew retired from a successful career in finance last year as a partner at Silver Point Capital LP. The Greenwich, Conn., firm is a privately owned hedge fund sponsor. He previously worked for companies such as The Blackstone Group and Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Wilson has a bachelor's degree and a master of business administration degree from Harvard University. He and his wife, Eva, have four children.

"Everything he's done, he's been great at," proud father Jim Wilson said.

Harry Wilson said that he was regarded in national financial circles as a "troubleshooter" - probably a main reason he was asked to help out Obama.

"My experience was a part of it," he said.

Now that he is settled into his work on the federal level, Wilson says he sees himself making a difference.

"I think it's very important we have a domestic auto industry," he said.

Wilson said he has "been fortunate to have been successful financially" and now is using his experience to help make a difference in the public sector.

Pete Wilson said his nephew has long been involved in Republican Party politics, and as an undergraduate, he was head of the Harvard Republican Club.

A 1993 article about Wilson in The Harvard Crimson said Wilson's classmates considered him "the nicest Republican you'll ever meet."

Crimson reporter Julian E. Barnes wrote: "Campus liberals have struggled over the past four years to reconcile Wilson's Reagan-style conservatism with his more downhome side, his distaste for wealthy 'country club Republicans,' and his honest and deep-felt concern for the poor, minorities and the disenfranchised."

Longtime JHS social studies teacher Ron Beck said teachers have a way of remembering the good students, and Harry Wilson was a special one. He said he taught Wilson in an American history class.

"He was an outstanding student and probably one of the best students we ever had," Beck said. "He was an outstanding person."

Beck said a couple more things about Wilson stand out in his mind: He scored a perfect 100 percent on the American history Regents exam, and he had a photographic memory.

Wilson's high school classmate Brett Preston, a local attorney and Johnstown councilman, said class members all strongly believed Wilson was headed for bigger and better things.

"I'm not surprised he's doing well," Preston said. "I'm surprised he's not the president. We all knew he would go far."

Another classmate, Stacey Palmer, remembers telling Wilson as a kid that he might be president someday. She's organizing a 20-year class reunion with Preston.

"He was always a nice guy," Palmer said. "I always got along good with Harry all through school."

At Harvard, Wilson was an honors student majoring in government, and he was elected a class marshal. In addition to his professional work, Wilson has been involved in a variety of charitable organizations, primarily focused on education and youth issues.

Wilson said the biggest influence in his life has been his parents, Jim and Niki.

He said one of his mentors - the late Republican Congressman Jack Kemp - introduced "compassion" into the national economic strategies climate. Although Obama has a slightly different approach than Kemp did with finances, Wilson said, Obama also clearly sees what is going on nationally.

"I think the president certainly understands the power of the markets," Wilson said.

Wilson said although he "absolutely" does not think government should be involved in private industry, the nation can't go into a "deep depression" either.

He said he remembers his father's involvement in the Johnstown Lions Club and was asked whether he might want to run for elected office someday.

"I certainly have a potential interest in public office," Wilson said.

Michael Anich can be reached by e-mail at



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