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WORLDVIEW: Celebrating a wonderful life

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Remember the scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George Bailey finally realizes (with some heavenly help from Clarence, an angel trying to earn his wings) just how many people in Bedford Falls have been blessed by his unselfish life?

I wonder if Calvin Wilkinson ever had a moment like that.

Probably not. Calvin was one of those “Greatest Generation” guys who helped save the free world from tyranny when he was barely out of high school — but never made a big deal out of it. He came home from the Navy to save lives and serve others for half a century as a career firefighter, longtime rescue squad member, hospital worker, husband, father, church volunteer, cook, friend.

He never made a big deal about all that, either.

Calvin much preferred to cook up some spaghetti sauce, talk stock car racing, crack wise or spring elaborate practical jokes on various victims. He also loved playing with kids — including mine, who cried bitter tears over leaving “Uncle Calvin” and “Aunt Ruth” when we moved a few years ago. I cried, too, knowing that he wouldn’t be next door to take amused pity on my mechanical ineptitude and fix whatever broke down around our house. To Calvin, helping neighbors was no big deal.

But it’s the season for thanksgiving. I want to give thanks for Calvin Wilkinson’s wonderful life, which ended in March 2002 after 73 eventful years and a long twilight struggle with cancer. It’s high time somebody made a big deal out of it.

Somebody did: the oldest lawmaking body in America, no less.

The Virginia House of Delegates (with the Senate concurring), passed House Joint Resolution 703 this year, “celebrating the life and memory of Calvin William Wilkinson … native son of Richmond, Virginia … true public servant, distinguished firefighter, Naval veteran and patriot….”

Family, friends and fellow firefighters gathered Nov. 18 in the old Virginia Senate chamber to remember Calvin and hear the resolution read aloud. Just outside the door, a 207-year-old statue of George Washington brooded over the Capitol Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson. Busts of other Virginia-related presidents and heroes stared down from the circular wall: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Wilson, Lafayette.

Grave and august personages all. However, I suspect they would have chuckled upon hearing the resolution celebrating Calvin. Its many “whereases” duly noted his eight years with the Navy’s Pacific fleet beginning near the end of World War II; his 24 years as a fireman, mostly with his beloved Engine Company Number 8; his service as a hospital safety officer and lifetime member of the Tuckahoe Volunteer Rescue Squad; and his volunteer work at Cambridge Baptist Church just west of Richmond.

But the resolution — affectionately instigated by several of Calvin’s old fireman buddies — didn’t fail to recall his “prowess in the culinary arts and expertise in the art of spaghetti sauce,” practiced in the fire station and later perfected in the Cambridge Baptist kitchen, now known as “Calvin’s Kitchen.” It also enshrined his “ability as a prankster, enjoying the laughter his tomfoolery created, not only within the [fire] department but on the unsuspecting citizens of the community….”

“That’s a lot of ‘whereases,'” observed Cambridge pastor Allan Mitchell after the ceremony. “Calvin gave his life to Jesus Christ. That’s the ‘whereas’ that really mattered.”

Mitchell saw that commitment deepen as Calvin endured the pain of cancer with the faithful support of his wife, Ruth. He also saw it several years ago when both Wilkinsons accompanied Mitchell and other Cambridge volunteers on a mission trip to Panama. They painted and refurbished a run-down Baptist seminary building by day and held evangelistic concerts in churches each night.

“We’d been working like dogs, and it was as hot as we’d ever experienced,” Mitchell recalls. “One night Calvin got really sick and we were quite concerned.” But he stuck it out until the job was done.

Who knows how many lives Calvin saved fighting fires and going out on rescue squad calls. He probably didn’t keep count — and certainly never bragged about it in my hearing. But I heard some stories from some of his fellow firefighters after his funeral last year.

“Most firefighters who are in it for the right reasons don’t talk a lot about it,” says Skip Brooks, a longtime firehouse colleague and friend. Brooks recounted the terrible night a burning warehouse roof collapsed over Calvin’s head. He scrambled under a desk while Brooks and other firefighters desperately broke windows to pull him out. Another time, Calvin separated his shoulder trying to break down a door when he thought a child was trapped behind it.

Most of all, Calvin had a way of comforting frightened or suffering people at fire scenes. “He had such a sympathy,” Brooks remembers.

Calvin didn’t brag on his firefighting exploits, but he did do a little bragging on his spaghetti sauce. “His mother taught him to cook, and he always loved it,” Ruth recalls. “He did the cooking at home, at the firehouse and at church.”

When the ravages of cancer finally prevented Calvin from commanding the church kitchen, church members still brought him in, Mitchell says. “He would just enjoy sitting there and watching” — and making sure they were doing things right.

Life is a mystery when we insist on complicating it, but it’s actually very simple. We waste too many of its precious moments complaining about traffic, the weather, each other. Meanwhile, next door — or in the next pew — sits someone who has achieved quiet greatness by serving others each day.

As Clarence the angel told George Bailey, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

“Hero” is a word too easily tossed around these days, but it belongs here: Calvin Wilkinson was a hero.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose WorldView column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges