Go­ing un­til his legs won’t hold him up any­more

Clif­ford ‘Big Daddy’ Wil­son re­flects on 91 years

Sunday Star - - LIFE - By KATIE WIL­LIS kwillis@star­dem.com

TILGHMAN — Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son, 91, of Tilghman is not lack­ing in ac­com­plish­ments. In his life­time, he has ser ved in World War II, worked on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay for nearly 65 years, and he has been a hus­band, fa­ther, grand­fa­ther and great-grand­fa­ther.

Born Feb. 17, 1926, Clif­ford was born and raised on Tilghman Is­land.

“He grew up fast,” his son, Rob­bie Wil­son, said.

Rob­bie said Clif­ford’s mother died when he was 9 years old. His sis­ter, then in her teens, raised Clif­ford.

“Them was the days when fam­ily took care of fam­ily,” Rob­bie said.

Clif­ford’s fa­ther was a cap­tain on yachts and took peo­ple on trips.

Clif­ford en­listed to serve in the mil­i­tary in 1942. In 1943, when Clif­ford was 17, he was drafted into World War II. He quit high school and be­gan his train­ing with the U.S. Navy in New York.

Fol­low­ing train­ing, Clif­ford was sent to serve as a sig­nal­man on the bat­tle­ship Ten­nessee at the U.S. naval base in Pearl Har­bor, Hawaii ter­ri­tory.

“I’ve seen enough of the world,” Clif­ford said.

“That took guts,” Rob­bie said, “for a young man to quit high school to en­ter the war.”

When the war ended in 1945, Clif­ford re­turned home to Tilghman, where he be­gan work­ing on the wa­ter, trot-lin­ing for crabs in the sum­mer, tong­ing for oys­ters dur­ing the win­ter, and drift-net fish­ing and clam­ming in be­tween crab­bing and tong­ing.

“I done it all,” Clif­ford said. “I love crab­bing. It wasn’t as hard as tong­ing, oys­ter­ing — that’s one thing I liked about it. And you made a lit­tle bit more money, then. I was sell­ing oys­ters then, and you was only get­ting about $1.50 a bushel for oys­ters.”

Clif­ford said, when he re­turned from the war, he worked on a boat with some­one else, un­til he saved enough money to buy his own boat. The first boat he pur­chased as his own was Dora F.

“Then I had one boat built, and I called her Big Daddy,” Clif­ford said.

In 1949, Clif­ford mar­ried Donna Har­ri­son. They had four chil­dren to­gether, Gail, Lisa, Rob­bie and Greg.

Rob­bie works out on the wa­ter, pound-net­ting for men­haden and rock­fish when the sea­son is in, and conch fish­ing in the At­lantic Ocean dur­ing the win­ter. Greg worked out on the wa­ter un­til his pass­ing this past year, trot-lin­ing for crabs dur­ing the sum­mer and div­ing for oys­ters in the win­ter.

Lisa Phillips, Clif­ford’s daugh­ter, said Greg was one of the first oys­ter divers on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, and he taught his sons, Derek and Daniel Wil­son, to dive for oys­ters, as well. She said her son, Michael Kennedy, works with Daniel on his boat, and Derek is co-owner/op­er­a­tor of Wild Divers Oys­ter Com­pany, along with Nick Har­grove.

Clif­ford has eight grand­chil­dren and eight great-grand­chil­dren, with two on the way, Lisa said. Of his six grand­sons, one is a po­lice of­fi­cer in Florida, and the other five work lo­cally on

the wa­ter.

Clif­ford said the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay was in good shape when he be­gan work­ing on the wa­ter. He said after Hur­ri­cane Agnes in June 1972, the Bay changed.

“I think that hurt us more than any­thing,” Clif­ford said. “It changed the con­di­tion of the bot­toms ... Oys­ter pop­u­la­tion went down.”

Be­sides the dif­fer­ence in equip­ment from when he be­gan work­ing on the wa­ter, Clif­ford said the prices are the biggest change from when he first be­came a water­man.

“Oys­ters now are about $50 a bushel. I was get­ting about $1.50, and some­times you couldn’t sell them ... Crab­bing, if you got $15 a bushel, you were do­ing good. Now look at them ... dou­bled, tripled,” Clif­ford said.

In ad­di­tion to trot-lin­ing, Clif­ford said he bought crabs and drove them to Baltimore to be sold.

“That’s a hard life, too,” Clif­ford said. “(Be­ing a water­man) is a six-day a week job ... a lot of hours. From sun up to sun down, you bet­ter be­lieve it.”

Rob­bie said times were much dif­fer­ent when his fa­ther be­gan work­ing on the wa­ter.

“When he grew up, things were tougher. There was no radar plot­ter ... All he had was a com­pass and time. What we got nowa­days, it’s no com­par­i­son ... Things were tight,” Rob­bie said. “(My Dad) hauled seine for fish at night and crabbed dur­ing the day. He worked day and night.”

On June 6, 2003, Clif­ford and two other men­who had en­listed with the mil­i­tary at the same time as Clif­ford, were awarded their high school diplo­mas dur­ing St. Michaels High School’s reg­u­lar grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony.

In 2007, Clif­ford’s wife, Donna, passed away, and in 2010, after nearly 65 years of work­ing on the wa­ter, Clif­ford re­tired and sold Big

Daddy at the age of 84. Clif­ford said one of the most im­por­tant things he does to keep mov­ing and stay young is walk­ing about a mile around Tilghman ev­ery day. And he still gets up early ev­ery morn­ing.

“Most (wa­ter­men) go un­til their legs won’t hold them up any­more,” Rob­bie said.

Clif­ford said work­ing on the wa­ter suited him.

“You’re your own boss, you do what you want to do — it makes a dif­fer­ence,” Clif­ford said. “I could have been sit­ting be­hind a desk, tak­ing or­ders, but I wasn’t. I was out there do­ing what I wanted to do.”

Of all the ac­com­plish­ments in his life, Clif­ford said his wife and kids are his biggest re­wards.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son owned two boats in his 65 years of work­ing on the wa­ter. His first boat was Dora F., and his sec­ond boat was Big Daddy.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

Clif­ford Wil­son is pic­tured here in first grade.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

Some of Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son’s great-grand­chil­dren are pic­tured.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son said he spent nearly 65 years of his life work­ing on the wa­ter. One of his fa­vorite parts of work­ing the wa­ter was his time spent crab­bing the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and its rivers and trib­u­taries. He is pic­tured here on Oct. 26, 1998.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son is pic­tured with three of his eight grand­chil­dren. Of his six grand­sons, five are lo­cal wa­ter­men.

PHOTO BY KATIE WIL­LIS

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son was born and raised on Tilghman Is­land, and worked on the wa­ter for al­most 65 years, re­tir­ing when he was 84. He will turn 92 on Feb. 17.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

Donna Wil­son, wife of Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son, is pic­tured on Clif­ford’s first boat, Dora F.

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son and his wife, Donna, both cen­ter, are shown with their fam­ily dur­ing a Christmas cel­e­bra­tion.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTOS

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son is pic­tured with his two daugh­ters, Gail Wil­son Aver­sano, left, and Lisa Wil­son Phillips, right.

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son, 91, of Tilghman is not lack­ing in ac­com­plish­ments. In his life­time, he has served in World War II, worked on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay for nearly 65 years, and he has been a hus­band, fa­ther, grand­fa­ther and great-grand­fa­ther.

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son is pic­tured on his high school grad­u­a­tion day, June 6, 2003.

Clif­ford “Big Daddy” Wil­son and his wife, Donna, are pic­tured in their last known photo to­gether. Donna passed away in 2007.

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