85 years ago this week, Ruby and Lorne Wilson anxiously awaited the birth of their second child, a son. Robert Harris Wilson would grow up to be a boy scout, a soldier, a postman…..and my Dad. This weekend, our family will celebrate Dad’s birthday and while we’re gathered around the table, he will certainly share a story or two. In fact, just when we think we’ve heard them all, he usually comes up with a new one.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve shared chapters from “One Man’s Work”, a small book that chronicles Dad’s 70+ years of work and his service in the United States Air Force. Below is the final installment.
Happy Birthday, Dad!
Dad left the United States military with Sergeant’s stripes, but he had been comfortable in a uniform long before entering the Air Force. As a boy, Dad was active in Boy Scouts of America, and one regret from his 83 years of “jobs” is that he came up one badge short of becoming an Eagle Scout.
Dad loved scouting and throughout his youth his goal was to make Eagle Scout. His final badge, the lifesaving project, required an extended underwater swim, but a childhood ear infection resulting in temporary hearing loss meant he couldn’t swim underwater, so Dad never completed the badge. He settled for Life Scout, which is just one rank under Eagle, and Order of the Arrow. He still has all his badges. Dad used his scouting experience to lead troops as an adult, and to land a great summer job.
“The summer after high school, while I was cooling my heels after being turned down by the U.S. Air Force, I was asked to join the seasonal staff at Big Island Boy Scout Camp at Sylvan Lake at Rome City,” remembers Dad. “I had taken Troop 111 to Big Island camps for four summers. So, they hired me to teach handicrafts, like working with metal, beads, leather and wood.”
Ever the explorer, Dad set off one evening by himself in a canoe. “I canoed all the way to Rome City, with my trusty flashlight between my knees. It was pitch dark on the way back and I was in the middle of Sylvan Lake – I could tell by the stars pointed toward Big Island – when I heard this speed boat coming toward me. I started hollering, but they were making so much noise they couldn’t hear me. I turned on my flashlight, but it didn’t work. They came toward me, and I thought ‘I’m going to have to hit the water.’ Well, they turned right beside me. Didn’t even know I was there.”
Three years and a military enlistment later, Dad hung up his Air Force uniform and found work with surveyor Bright Bortner.
“I was his ‘rod man’. We surveyed all over, including lakefront lots at Rome City. It was fun working for him. That guy had so much knowledge stored in his head.”
Dad’s dad, Lorne, died in the fall of 1950, just months after Dad came back to Albion. That winter, Dad took a job at the Ford garage where his dad had been a top-notch mechanic. He also went to Lain Drafting College in Fort Wayne to expand his drafting skills. Over the next several years, Dad held jobs at Universal Friction, McCray Refrigeration and International Harvester. He also did some part-time drafting work for a start-up business run by Chester Dekko of Albion. Dekko wanted to hire Dad full-time at Lyall Electric, but by then Dad’s old boss, Cary Davis, had hired him back at the Albion Post Office. Dad stayed with the postal department until January 1984, retiring with a total of 35 years of service. During those years, Dad married and raised five children.
Dad’s retirement lasted just a couple of months. In March of 1984, Albion town board member Jim McCoy (who had been hired by Dad to carry mail when he was postmaster 30 years earlier) hired Dad to maintain the town’s parks. Dad helped with improvements to Owen Park across from the school and worked under Terry Askren in the development of the new Valley View Park and ball diamonds at the west edge of town.
Dad’s responsibilities with the town changed in 1993 when he suffered a heart attack. After his recovery, the town’s utilities supervisor, Everett Leatherman, put Dad to work in town hall. During his remaining years of working for Albion, Dad helped remodel then later move the town and police offices from South Orange Street to the Albion Industrial Park. He also updated schematics for the town’s water and sewer departments, working alongside town managers John Remke and, later, Beth Shellman.
Dad also worked with Russell Zeigler maintaining Rose Hill Cemetery a job he thoroughly enjoyed. He began updating cemetery records, creating new maps showing every burial space. To this day, Dad maintains his connections with Rose Hill Cemetery, having led Tombstone Trail visitors and sharing facts about many of the cemetery’s residents.
In December, 2009, at age 81, Dad was recognized for 25 years of service with the Town of Albion.
“I was daggone fortunate in having the stuff to do that I did,” says Dad of his work for his hometown. “It was sure a Duke’s mixture.”
Until recently, Dad would show up at the town hall from time to time to bring the burial records up to date and to make sure everything was running smoothly. More often than not, someone would throw a question at him or ask his opinion on some new improvement. Dad still drops in for a chat when he’s out and about. He’ll share a story or two and reflect on his years working in and around his hometown, giving those who know him reason to believe age isn’t a barrier to one man’s work.