Wineka column: A gift, one day after the funeral

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 22, 2016

SALISBURY — Your first inclination is to call it serendipitous, but then you think, there was nothing accidental about this.

Around lunchtime at East Rowan High School Thursday, senior Ike Emerson checked his emails and noticed he had a message from the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. It was an important one.

Ike had received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Only the day before, Ike’s father, retired Maj. Gen. Jim Emerson, had been laid to rest at the Salisbury National Cemetery. All told, Jim Emerson had served 44 years in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard, and his wife, Bonnie, knew what Ike’s earning an appointment to West Point would have meant to Jim.

“I don’t know of anything that would have made me smile today, except for this,” Bonnie Emerson said Thursday. “I know he knows about it.”

She was talking about Jim, of course.

Most people knew Jim Emerson, who died Saturday at age 76 from heart surgery complications. Besides his distinguished military career, most with the National Guard, he was a 31-year educator — a teacher, principal and area superintendent in Charlotte, including 14 years as Olympic High principal.

That doesn’t count his eight years of service on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, including his time as chairman.

Looking back on his career, Emerson once said, “Someone had a lot of confidence in me. I’m the turtle on the fence post. He didn’t get there by himself.”

It has been the longest of months for Ike Emerson. His dad went in for heart surgery Jan. 7 and never made it back home. Two days after the surgery, with his father not doing well, Ike traveled with his mother to Burr’s Winston-Salem office for an interview connected to a hoped-for nomination to the U.S, Military Academy at West Point.

“We went anyway,” Bonnie said. “Ike did superb at the interview.”

As part of the nomination process, Ike also had interviewed with the offices of U.S. Sen. Tom Tillis and U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson. Last September, Ike already had learned he had been offered an appointment to the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis, which thrilled Jim and took some of the pressure off Ike.

But for both son and father, West Point was the No. 1 choice.

“This was meant to be,” Bonnie said.

This past summer, Ike also had been accepted into the weeklong Summer Leader Experience at West Point — another highly selective process and an activity which surely bolstered his appointment chances.

Ike Emerson is No. 1 in his class at East Rowan High. The Eagle Scout belongs to the cross country, tennis and swim teams. He attended school Thursday and swam in a county swim meet in the afternoon, competing in the breast stroke, freestyle and relays.

Bonnie said she and her son are trying to find comfort in routine, plus school was a good place for Ike Thursday because the East Rowan staff and his fellow students have been so supportive.

There’s another thing, Bonnie said. Ike is so much like his father, and to them, “There are no excuses. You know what you’re supposed to do.”

In preparing himself for life at a military academy, Ike religiously works out before going to school. If he has some kind of school athletic event, he delays his workout routine until he comes home.

“Every single day,” Bonnie said. “If there was anyone dedicated and ready and they should have taken … and they don’t even know all that.”

Both Jim and Bonnie were recently widowed when they connected and started dating close to 20 years ago. Bonnie was a cousin of Jim’s first wife, Sarah, and had actually been a junior bridesmaid at their wedding 35 years earlier.

Bonnie’s son Kemp was a senior in high school and trying to choose between going to college or entering the military. Bonnie wanted Kemp to seek military advice from someone other than a recruiter, so she arranged for Kemp and her to meet with Jim.

Maybe it was a sign, but at the time Jim was traveling all over the country for the Army, and he would often call his phone at home for messages. When he heard that first message from Bonnie, he just happened to be at West Point.

Jim reminded Bonnie of that only recently.

Something else happened long ago, when Ike was just a toddler, that has made it easier for Bonnie to live with what has happened.

Some 16 years ago, when Jim was still in the military, he faced another serious heart operation — this one at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. It was a lengthy surgery, and that whole day Bonnie prayed that her son, who was only a year and five months old, would be able to grow up “and know this wonderful man.”

Until he was almost 60, Jim Emerson had never had any children of his own. Bonnie knew how close he and Ike would become, if just given the chance.

“I got my prayer,” Bonnie said, knowing now that Ike can never forget his father and that every time she looks at him, she will see Jim.

“I’m at peace with this now,” Bonnie said. “Ike and Jimmy had a wonderful relationship, and Jim was so proud of him. I’m at peace.”

So did Jim Emerson have anything to do with Ike’s appointment to West Point?

A turtle doesn’t get on top of a fence post by himself.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or