Going until his legs won’t hold him up anymore
Clifford ‘Big Daddy’ Wilson reflects on 91 years
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
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.
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.
Clifford Wilson is pictured here in first grade.
Some of Clifford “Big Daddy” Wilson’s great-grandchildren are pictured.
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.
Clifford “Big Daddy” Wilson is pictured with three of his eight grandchildren. Of his six grandsons, five are local watermen.
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.
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.
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.