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Leading by example Volunteer honored by state an inspiration to others

By Scott Jenkins

Salisbury Post

Dwight Wilhelm doesn’t talk much about himself, and he doesn’t talk much about Earlie Swift. But the story of their friendship says a lot about Wilhelm’s character.

It was the late 1960s and Wilhelm was the financial officer at Wagoner Construction. Swift was a laborer. In the still-turbulent South, Wilhelm was a white man and Swift was a black man.

Their differences didn’t matter to Wilhelm, though. When Swift, who lived in a shack by a building the business owned, suffered brain damage after being hit by a car, Wilhelm stepped in to help.

Over the next 15 years, Wilhelm worked to secure Social Security benefits for Swift. He got a bank loan and bought a house for Swift and his sister. And when the house burned, he spent two years rebuilding it.

Wilhelm had legal papers drawn up so that he could look after Swift’s affairs. Near the end of Swift’s life, Wilhelm found him a nursing home. Wilhelm cared for Swift and his sister until both passed away.

Wilhelm called Swift a humble man and a good worker and said when the accident robbed him of his ability to take care off himself, he saw “something I just felt like I should do for my fellow man.

“I never did really consider why,” he said. “I just felt like it was something I needed to do. … I thought it was an opportunity to help somebody else.”

Wilhelm has been finding those opportunities for a long time, and he’s been giving his time and talent to help people just as long. He has volunteered for decades at Rowan Vocational Opportunities, helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity and provided aid to Gulf Coast residents devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

In recognition of that history of selflessness, Gov. Mike Easley recently honored Wilhelm with the N.C. Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service, the state’s highest commendation for volunteerism.

* * *

Born Feb. 25, 1927, Wilhelm lived on his family’s farm on N.C. 150 until moving to Rockwell in 1936.

After graduating from high school in 1944, he joined the U.S. Navy. With the nation entrenched World War II, the government was drafting men into military service. But Wilhelm didn’t wait for Uncle Sam to call. He volunteered.

Following three brothers into the armed forces, one in the Navy and two in the U.S. Army, Wilhelm was assigned to a new destroyer, the U.S.S. Floyd B. Parks. The crew that commissioned the ship in July 1945 reached Pearl Harbor in Hawaii as the war ended.

Wilhelm spent the rest of his two-year commitment as the ship’s storekeeper striker, running the store, buying supplies and figuring pay for the crew.

Returning to Rowan County in 1946, Wilhelm graduated from Catawba College in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in business. He worked for several businesses in Greensboro and Salisbury between 1949 and 1957, when he went to work for the University of Virginia as an assistant bursar.

In 1957, he married the former Betty Gray of Cleveland, a Lenoir-Rhyne College graduate who went on to earn her master’s degree and take graduate courses at the University of Georgia to become a reading specialist while the couple’s four boys were in school.

After retiring in 1992, Wilhelm got his contractor’s license and has spent a lot of time since then using his building skills to help people.

Wilhelm said Betty, who taught at Mt. Ulla Elementary School for a number of years and has recently taught at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, has allowed him to give so much of himself.

“I couldn’t have done all I’ve done” without Betty’s understanding and support, Wilhelm said. “My wife has been a very important part of my life.”

* * *

And it was Betty who got him to Rowan Vocational Opportunities recently without letting on the reason for their visit. Wilhelm received the award during a presentation at the agency for people with developmental disabilities where he spent more than 20 years on the board of directors.

As treasurer, he helped the agency relocate and consolidate facilities on Old Concord Road. As co-chairman of the building committee, he helped to renovate the new facility.

After leaving the board, he has continued working with the agency. He helped to build its new offices and renovate a break area, among other things, and serves on its facility committee.

“He was quite active, not just with his time, but out here with a hammer and saw in his hand,” said Carl Repsher, executive director of Rowan Vocational Opportunities. “There’s very little this guy can’t do in the way of building things. … Everything from carpentry to cabinetry, he’s really quite accomplished in that area.”

Repsher observed during the presentation that Wilhelm would just as soon not get the recognition, but that he deserved it. He called Wilhelm “a humble, self-effacing kind of individual.”

Wilhelm said he initially got involved at Rowan Vocational Opportunities, which puts the developmentally disabled to work, because his son, Russell, is a client there. But he said, “I would take just as much interest if my son weren’t there, because it’s a good facility for kids who need to be in a protected environment.”

And he’s beloved there. At the presentation of his volunteerism award, he stood on the work floor surrounded by friends, most of them clients. They applauded louder than anyone when Repsher unveiled a framed certificate and letter from the governor.

Wilhelm returns the affection.

“You get to know quite a few of them,” Wilhelm said later. “They’re warm and outgoing kids and very appreciative of what you do. … You can’t help but have a good feeling about it.”

But what is it that drives Wilhelm to do good?

Faith, Repsher said.

“Not to make this over-spiritual, but I think he is a committed Christian,” Repsher said. “He honestly attempts to model his behavior with the notion of Christlike service.”

* * *

Service is important to Wilhelm. He is not one to talk about his faith. He’s one to do something about it.

“Everybody has his own way of how they believe,” he said. “… I think the biggest thing is setting good examples for other people to follow, and hope that you do something for your fellow man.”

He set an example for Rob Watts, who attended church with Wilhelm at First United Methodist Church about a year before first working with him on a Habitat for Humanity house in 2005.

“From that day, he’s always been a friend and a father to me,” Watts said at the volunteerism award presentation. “And I know he’s like a dad to a lot of people in this community.”

Watts later said Wilhelm took him under his wing, taught him things about construction. He was impressed with “just the way he embraces people and is so patient with people to show them how to do things.”

Wilhelm was project leader on that house and Coleman Emerson, director of Habitat for Humanity in Rowan County, said he came early, stayed late and “almost built the house single-handedly.”

“He’s a small guy in size,” Emerson said of Wilhelm. “But he’s got a wonderful, big heart.”

And Watts, when asked what he believes makes Wilhelm such a giving person, spoke of his heart, too.

“I think he’s got Christ in his heart,” he said. “Christ was the ultimate servant, and I think he’s got a servant’s heart.”

* * *

Wilhelm acknowledges that he could have let bitterness poison his heart when tragedy struck his family last year. His 40-year-old son, David, a high-ranking U.S. Immigration and Customs agent, was shot and killed by a fugitive as he worked on a home in Atlanta for himself and his wife, Candee.

He could have let his heart harden, could have turned away from people, but he didn’t.

“I have not felt any bitterness toward anyone,” he said. “I think it was good I was able to go and do things for people because it helps you recover from the devastation in your family.”

Wilhelm said David’s death “kind of instilled in me a greater desire to help people.”

After his son’s death, Wilhelm heard from people David had helped. One was a man he had arrested in Charlotte on drug charges and helped get a lesser sentence. The man called David one night and told him he was about to shoot himself. David asked where he was, went there and took the gun away.

That man called Wilhelm three times and visited him. He said of David, “I love that man. He saved my life.”

He heard from a woman whose husband David had arrested. The man fled to Mexico, but David tracked him down and talked him into coming back to “do what’s right,” the woman told Wilhelm. He did return and David didn’t just arrest the man. He counseled the couple and helped them stay together.

Wilhelm said his son “would have done anything to help anyone, and I don’t know … that might have gotten him killed.”

Still, Wilhelm said he does not hate Brian Nichols, the man about to go on trial for killing David and three others escaping from an Atlanta courthouse.

“I just hope they put him somewhere where he can’t hurt someone else,” he said.

* * *

Less than six months after the storm that devastated the Wilhelm family, Hurricane Katrina ripped apart the Gulf Coast. When his church sent a team to help rebuild in January he could have stayed home and no one would have blamed him. But when asked, he said yes.

“He was the very first person I thought about,” said Watts, now the disaster relief coordinator at First United Methodist.

The group went to Pascagoula, Miss., a city adopted by Salisbury and its residents after the hurricane. Wilhelm called the destruction “really unbelievable.”

“It was so massive that you couldn’t finish it,” he said. And when the group had to leave, “In some respects you wouldn’t feel good, because you couldn’t finish what you started.”

That sense of unfinished business is part of what drew Wilhelm back to Pascagoula when the church sent a team down just a few weeks ago.

“I just knew they needed more help,” he said.

Unlike the first trip, the group met the owner of the home they were helping to repair. And homeowner J.D. Reddix said he’s glad he got to meet Wilhelm.

“You talk about a stand-up guy … that’s one in a million,” Reddix said.

The team from First United Methodist hung sheetrock for four days in the 1,344-square-foot house that Reddix built and he said Wilhelm worked “like a youngster.”

“He’s an easygoing fellow and everything he did he did straight from the heart,” he said. Reddix said he was surprised by the pace Wilhelm was able to keep, but not by his desire to help.

His impression of Wilhelm was that “He was a God-fearing man and he cared about his fellow man.”

Wilhelm said being able to help Reddix made him feel good. Being able to complete the job gave him satisfaction. “You come away feeling rewarded for what you did,” he said.

* * *

Wilhelm is a man who likes to finish what he starts, and maybe that’s part of what makes him such a good volunteer. If he gets into something, he’s not going to get out until it’s done.

“I’ve always liked to see the end product,” he said, whether it’s a Rowan Vocational Opportunities project, a Habitat house, a Pascagoula job, or a cabin at a Methodist Church children’s retreat.

It’s not always painless. He helped a friend build a house last summer and fears that’s what caused him the hip problems that had him hobbling a bit around his own home, which he built, as well.

“I hate that, because I usually don’t stop going,” he said.

But it’s not something he dwells on. Wilhelm said he’s thankful for all he’s gotten to do, the help he has been able to provide to others.

“It’s not anything I wouldn’t do over,” he said. “If you do a good deed, you’re rewarded in some way.”

When talking about the award he received from the governor, Wilhelm protests, as he did that day at Rowan Vocational Opportunities, that “There’s lots of people that do a whole lot more than I’ve done.”

He quickly adds, though, how much he appreciates the honor. And even if he is resting his hip a bit, he’s not resting on his laurels. He expects to be building, and helping, soon.

“Right now, I don’t have anything on the books,’ he said. “But I’m sure I’ll find something.”

Contact Scott Jenkins at 704-797-4248 or sjenkins@salisburypost.com.

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