Today, the world celebrates the 95th birthday of the Reverend Billy Graham. He will be honored at a party attended by an estimated 800 guests in his home town of Asheville, N.C., and the nation will watch a telecast of his evangelistic program “My Hope America”. I remember vividly listening to “The Hour of Decision” on the radio in the 1950s and ’60s and watching The Billy Graham Crusades on television. His image is forever linked to my decision for Christ as an 18-year-old Catholic girl, and I would love to be among the guests at his birthday party.
In a little over six weeks, my family will celebrate the 85th birthday of my Dad, Robert Harris Wilson. We’ll hold a small, intimate party in his home town with family and a few invited guests. It will be a good time of sharing memories and recognizing this well-loved man.
Two honorable men whose lives are worthy of celebration.
I met Rev. Billy Graham’s daughter, Ruth, at a writers’ conference this fall, and felt an immediate kinship to this sweet yet lively lady who says she’s “been through fire” and is now willing to talk about it. The third of Billy and Ruth’s five children, Ruth is an author and speaker. She recently wrote this about growing up in the famous Graham family:
“We do not sit around praying and reading our Bibles all day. We don’t wear halos. We are really rather ordinary but have an extraordinary relative. That does not make us special – it just makes us different. And Daddy is extraordinary because he has followed God’s call on his life in a single-focused way. Everybody has that opportunity. Most of us slip along the way – I sure did. But my father gave me extraordinary grace. To each one who has slipped, he gives grace. We have had divorces, affairs, unwed pregnancies, drug abuse, jail time…not a pretty picture except that God’s outrageous grace has been our comfort and His faithfulness, our security.”
I can say with certainty that my Dad also answered God’s call on his life — to become a soldier, husband, father and hard worker. For me, that makes him pretty “extraordinary”. In his own quiet way, Dad influenced many in the rural Indiana community where he grew up and raised his family. Like the Grahams, each of us five Wilson siblings have given Dad reasons to worry, and to each he’s extended his own measure of grace. For that, and so much more, we will honor Dad this December.
On a November weekend two years ago, I made a pilgrimage to my home town where I spent the weekend assembling memories from Dad’s life, collected during many long conversations with him around our kitchen table. Those memories became the self-published book “One Man’s Work”. For Father’s Day the following June, I gave Dad two boxes full of copies of his book and we gave away or sold every one of them.
Beginning today, and for the next five Thursdays, I will post chapters from Dad’s book, along with some wonderful photos of my home town and Dad. “One Man’s Work” is not great literature. It’s simply a chronicle of a life well-lived. I hope you enjoy it.
My Dad, the Mailman
Dusty gray walls and floor muffle the low conversations and bustling activity of the postal workers. Men are stacking letters and parcels into huge canvas bins stretched on rolling frames. Tall metal “cubbies” with labels bearing names taped below each hole bring order to the chaos. A musty, papery smell fills the dim light.
It is mid-winter in the late 1960s and my Dad, Robert Wilson, is a rural mail carrier for the Albion Post Office. The skinny, brown-eyed teenager perched importantly on the wooden seat of a tall metal stool is me, his oldest child and his “assistant” for the day. I sense it is a privilege and probably not in accordance with postal code to be allowed behind the counter at the post office, watching Dad “stuff” the mail and prepare to go on his route.
I marvel at how he swiftly reads each letter, card, newspaper, magazine or package and finds the owner with a glance, slipping the mail into the correct slot or pitching packages into a nearby box. Dad gives a running commentary as he works:
“This belongs to Mrs. Starkey. There you go. Thurlow Holcomb, right here. Package for Hazel Madison, over there in the bag.”
Dad is fastidious about his work, as he is about most things in life. “A place for everything and everything in its place” he often says. Sorting and stuffing the mail is the best sort of orderliness and, even at my young age, I sense the pleasure this task gives him.
Mail duly sorted, Dad begins bundling it with leather straps and stacking the bundles in a cart to transfer to his car, awaiting delivery. He knows every family on his route in order, something else that amazes me, and the mail is stacked in that order. The rolling carts are pushed to the back door of the post office, where our car sits in the parking lot, warming up. A sign Dad has placed on our family car marks him as a “Letter Carrier”. Another cautions other drivers to “Watch for Stops”.
On this special day, I’m not only watching Dad work, I’ve been recruited to ride with him. Snow has canceled school, but not mail delivery, and Dad needs someone to ride along to help reach the mail boxes. I’m the oldest of Dad’s five kids and I appreciate the importance of my assignment.
Usually, Dad sits on the right hand side of the car and drives with his left hand and foot stretched across to the steering wheel and gas and brake pedals. To me, he is better than a circus performer, stretching and contorting his body with such ease. Because snow has narrowed the country roads making some of them almost impassable, today Dad is sitting in the driver’s seat and I’m on the passenger’s side, waiting to stuff mail boxes. I’m not belted in because there will be too much moving about, making this trip a little more exciting, almost dangerous. A shovel has been thrown in the trunk and will be pulled out several times to clear a path to a mail box. Dad’s patrons depend on their mail delivery, and he lives by the postal code:
“Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
By the time he began delivering mail on a rural route, Dad had worked for the postal department for over 20 years. He logged another 25 before retiring. In his career with the United States Postal Service, he did everything from walking town routes to clerking the counter. After a stint as postmaster in the early 1960s, he claimed rural route 4 as his territory, and that’s where he stayed until his retirement in 1984. Every Christmas, we were reminded that his customers appreciated the good service he provided when packages of cookies, candy, special gifts and even money were showered on my Dad (and us). The gifts were rewards for his faithfulness and his “good work ethic”, traits Dad began honing at a young age.
A child of The Great Depression, Dad says he can barely remember a time when he wasn’t bringing home quarters and dimes to add to the family coffers. Today, some 80 years later, he can count 30 different jobs held in and around Albion during his lifetime.
Five jobs before Dad entered high school helped put food on the family table and shoes on his feet. The second of four boys, he was born less than a year after his older brother, Bill, and just 10 months before the 1929 stock market crash, an event that shaped lives, including those of small-town auto mechanic Charles Lorne Wilson, his wife, Ruby, and their sons, William, Robert, Wayne and Paul.
Lorne, as he was called, was a Canadian who would live in the United States nearly 25 years before deciding to become a naturalized citizen. He raised a family in Indiana, but took his wife and sons back to Canada frequently to see the Wilson siblings and their children. Lorne clearly still considered Ontario, Canada his homeland. By the time Lorne finally applied for American citizenship in 1950, he was already disabled by a heart condition and would die before the year was out.
Lorne was born and raised near London, Ontario, but as a young man he worked across the American border for Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan. One of his jobs was driving new cars to Ford dealers in Indiana, including a little car lot in Albion.
As Dad tells it, “When he first saw Mom, Dad had just delivered a car in town at the Ford garage where he eventually would be employed. A short ways from the garage was the movie theater. Instead of heading out, Dad went to the movies. This was back when they played the piano along with whatever was on the screen. Can you believe it? Albion had a movie theater! Well, Ruby was playing the piano, only she wasn’t really playing because she couldn’t really play. She was just fingering the keys. It must have been a player piano. That’s when he first met her. He came back on other deliveries and they got together.”
Ruby Edsall was born in 1903. She was a teenager when she met the handsome, mustached Canadian, four years her senior. One of Dad’s favorite photographs of his Mother fits the image of a “new breed” of young women in the 1920s. Her smartly bobbed hair, high heels and impish smile hint of the spirit and spunk that characterized the woman who was to become his Mom.
“She was one heck of a basketball player,” says Dad. “Hard to believe. We have photos of her in her uniform, holding the ball.”
Dad was told a story about his Mom’s basketball career. The girls played their games upstairs of the Opera House on West Jefferson Street, on the north side of the courthouse square in Albion. Ruby’s basketball bloomers were held up by an elastic band and during one especially rowdy game, the elastic broke and the bloomers dropped to her ankles. Someone handed her a safety pin and, barely missing a step, she gathered them up and went on playing.
In the 1920s, pole-sitting was a big deal, says Dad. “Someone would erect a pole and put a place to sit on top of it and they’d get up on there somehow and see how long they could stay on it.” In true “flapper” style, Ruby took the challenge.
“She must have been a real wing-dinger,” chuckles Dad.
When Ruby left high school in the early 1920s, she said good-bye to small town life. Daring, “modern” Ruby, the girl with the dimpled smile who never missed a chance for adventure, apparently quit school and moved to Detroit to live with her brother and his family, and to be near Lorne. Not much is known about the life Ruby enjoyed in this booming city on the shore of Lake Erie, other than that she came back to Albion as the wife of Charles Lorne Wilson.
I watched the Billy Graham special this week and it was so good! I remember my parents taking me to a crusade when I was a young girl. I believe it was at Notre Dame. My grandparents came along. We watched his crusades on television as well.
What a great tribute to your dad! I look forward to reading more in the coming Thursdays.
Thank you, Karen. I’m glad you enjoyed the chapters. I feel honored to share his life stories with others while he is still alive.