Wilson looks back on 96 yearsPublished 5:35pm Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Russellville resident Johnnie Wilson is just four years shy of spending an entire century on this earth, but for Wilson, who turned 96 years old this past Monday, age is just a number.
Wilson may be 96 years old, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it just by looking at him. He still gets around well and you can often find him and his wife, Mary, eating out at one of their favorite restaurants, Catfish Haven.
These days, Wilson takes it easy and spends most of his time visiting with family and friends, but the life he has lead has definitely been a full one.
Wilson was raised on a farm in Green County, Ala., where his family raised cotton, corn, peanuts and sugar cane.
“We grew everything on our farm that we needed almost,” Wilson said. “We had hogs to eat and we managed fine.”
His parents, Jim and Kate Bell Wilson, raised Wilson along with four sisters and three brothers.
He went to Walker School during his younger years and transferred to Beech Grove School in third grade.
His family moved five miles north of Eutaw, Ala., and he continued going to school until he had to drop out in the ninth grade to help support his family during his father’s illness.
“My father had cancer and someone had to support the family,” he said. “I was the sixth one in line and my older siblings had already married, so I had to go home and make a living for my mom, three sisters, grandma and one brother.”
Wilson said he started working in the field on his family’s farm when he was five years old, so he began farming again to earn a living at a time when the Great Depression was in full swing.
“Like a lot of other people during the Depression, we made just enough to pay the mortgage on the farm,” he said. “Before the Depression, cotton was 30 cents a pound but afterwards, it was only 5 cents a pound. That made a lot of difference in those days.”
After his father passed away in 1933, Wilson continued to work on the farm until he entered the public sector in 1937 driving a truck for a construction company for 25 cents an hour.
“I did that for one summer and then went to work for C.C. Moore Construction Company who was building bridges in Alabama, and I did that for about three years,” he said.
During this time, Wilson said he attended a community party in Clanton.
“While I was there, I looked over and saw this beautiful lady,” he said. “I went over and asked her to dance with me and I made up my mind that night that if I ever married, she would be my wife.”
Wilson was right. The lady he danced with that night, Mamie Ruth Porter, became his wife on Dec. 21, 1940.
After that, Wilson was working for Farnsworth Construction Company when the company asked him to transfer to Texas in 1943.
“We packed up with four suitcases and $125 and headed out there even though we had no place to stay,” he said.
The Wilsons remained in Texas until Mamie came back to Alabama during the last few months of pregnancy with her first child, Peggy Wilson Vernon, in December of 1944. When Peggy was six weeks old, Mamie brought her back to Texas where they lived until Wilson was called into military service in 1945.
He attended basic training near Little Rock, Ark., and was able to come home for Christmas before being shipped out to Germany in January of 1946 where he was stationed for seven months during World War II.
“When the orders came down for all the fathers to be shipped back to the States, I got to come home and was discharged,” he said.
When he came back home, he decided to build a home on the land he had previously purchased from his mother near Eutaw and he built the two-bedroom house himself with help from some friends.
“You had to be a jack of all trades back then,” he said.
His son, Johnny, was born in April of 1947 followed by his second son, Jimmy, who was born on July 4, 1948.
He continued farming to make a living until he was offered a job in 1952 with the Alabama Department of Agriculture in the Soil and Water Conservation division.
He didn’t accept the full-time position and worked part-time for two years until he was offered a full-time job again and given the option to choose from 13 counties to work in.
“Tuscaloosa County was my first pick, so I started working full-time in Tuscaloosa with the Department of Agriculture Soil and Conservation Service.”
He was transferred in 1962 to Franklin County and worked for the department for 28 more years before retiring in 1979.
After his retirement, Wilson raised honey bees for the next 20 years that produced 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of honey each year.
In July of 2003, Mamie, his wife of 62 years, passed away.
“She was my first love,” he said. “We were married a long time but it wasn’t long enough.”
Several months later, Wilson began a relationship with a friend he had known for many years.
He married Mary on Feb. 24, 2004.
“She is a very fine lady and I enjoy spending my time with her,” he said.
Over the years, Wilson has also been a Sunday School teacher and deacon at several different Baptist churches in the towns where he has lived.
“He has led a very interesting life,” his daughter, Peggy Vernon, said. “He has been a great example for 96 years.”