Wendell Wilcox will always be my hero
Published 5:54 am Sunday, June 1, 2003
A funeral service is a sad and somber event because we always bid farewell to someone we love and will sorely miss. Still, I have observed on numerous occasions, and have heard it commented upon as many times by others, that funerals also bring old friends together in joyous reunion more than any other event.
I believe this is a good thing and is in no way disrespectful to the deceased person in whose honor the service is dedicated. The recent funeral services of Brother Ralph Johnson, a very popular and beloved local preacher of more than fifty years, brought together an exceptionally large crowd of such friends whose tears of sadness and mourning were mixed with smiles of affection for one another, warm hand shakes, embraces, and the hearty exchange of stories of their shared pasts. I was no exception.
As I entered the outer vestibule of the Johnson-Quimby Funeral Home chapel, one of the first faces I recognized was that of an old high school classmate, Wendell Wilcox.
I have seen Wendell only a few times since our school days in the early 1960's, each time a chance meeting consisting of a handshake and a few words of friendly greeting. Yet, I remember each of these times clearly because Wendell Wilcox still exudes in his athletic physique and earnest smile the same qualities which made him so popular in his high school years.
Wendell Wilcox was an outstanding football player in high school, you see, and his athletic prowess is still remembered all these years later by many of those who watched him play football in high school, especially during Ernest Ward's undefeated 1961 season.
Wendell Wilcox could flat run with that football!
But Wendell Wilcox was not just a good football player. He was a charismatic personality whose friends and fans clamored to be near him. In those days, watching Wendell Wilcox saunter across the paved driveway from the schoolhouse to the gym dressing rooms in his levis and blue-and-gold football jacket was like a reincarnation of James Dean.
When Wendell took the football on Coach Joe Latham's proprietary power play, the famous 88-Sweep, he often brought the crowd to their feet as he dashed lightening fast through the cluttered defense and suddenly emerged into an open field for a long touchdown, ball game after ball game.
I will not say that Wendell Wilcox was the fastest runner who ever carried the football on the Ernest Ward team, but he was one of the most flamboyant. Wendell ran straight up with his head back and his legs flailing behind him and seemed to be putting every ounce of his energy into running that football, as if running from the devil himself. If one were close enough to him, he could be heard grunting with every step.
Yes, Wendell Wilcox was just plain cool, both on the field and off.
Wendell told me that he had experienced a stroke in recent years and is still in recovery. I noticed some mild change in his speech, but only after he had told me this. He said he exercises regularly and is improving right along. Wendell smoked cigarettes in high school, as many boys did in those days, and I asked him if he had quit. He said he had quit smoking almost twenty years prior to having his stroke, which he felt was brought on by working that day in extremely hot temperatures. He introduced me to his wife, Ethel, who was formerly married to one of Ralph Johnson's sons who died at a young age from a diabetes related illness.
I asked Wendell if he knew Brother Johnson well. He smiled and said, yes, he knew him very well, and I perceived that here stood yet another person whose life had been influenced by the inimitable Ralph Johnson.
As Brother Ralph's son, Jerry, concluded the service as the final speaker, he told us that his father was a man who cherished the past, a past in which he had played an important role wherever he was, and that in his older years his father's mind often wandered to the past.
I had occasion to visit with Brother Ralph Johnson frequently during the last weeks of his life, and though I always found him to be characteristically lucid and alert for a man of any age (he was 87 years old), he did indeed love the past and he savored talking about it.
His memories of the past were clear and joyful, and as his health failed in his final days he often expressed his resolute anticipation of joining his many old friends in the hereafter. I learned much about life and death during my visits with this man and always left his presence feeling better about both.
As I stood with Wendell Wilcox and a small group of other old friends at the funeral service of Brother Ralph Johnson, I could not miss the beam on Wendell's face as we reminisced about his glory days of high school football stardom. Wendell Wilcox is a different person now than he was then. There is a humility and a peacefulness about him that he did not have as a young man.
Yet, I saw in him still the shadow of the swaggering athlete in the blue-and-gold football jacket and I could not help but still worship him as I did then.
Indeed, it is an odd and wonderful phenomenon, the power of the dead to bring the living together in joyful reunion. And just as the lives and memories of the dead continue to change the world through their influence over the living, so also does our own past, which is likewise dead and gone, wield a great influence over who we are today and who we will be tomorrow.
Wendell Wilcox and I are middle-aged men now who have to carry a sack lunch along to run a 100-yard-dash, but when I sometimes feel the devil breathing down my collar, I think of Wendell, throw my head back, start stepping out with a grunt, and I keep running as hard as I can for that goal line.
I am confident that the life of Wendell Wilcox will be about far more than high school football touchdowns, but if he had done nothing more with his life than run touchdowns, that single legacy would have touched this one life and made a difference.
Lloyd Albritton is an independent columnist for the Atmore Advance. Readers who share Lloyd's interest in the art of storytelling are invited to join him every Friday at 6 p.m. at Atmore's Community Cup. He may be contacted at (850)384-6676 or by e-mail at LloydAlbritton@aol.com.