Wilborn: ‘friends with everybody’
The search for Charles Wilborn’s best friend is met with a lot of long pauses and brain-racking, because, as his daughter Bonnie Wilborn puts it, “He was friends with everybody.”
Wilborn died of a heart attack Saturday at the age of 73, and though locals were surprised by his sudden passing, their stories made it clear Wilborn had used his time wisely, making friends and a difference everywhere he went.
In the wake of Wilborn’s passing, stories about his contagious smile and effusive personality abounded, along with his passion for serving, humble spirit and upstanding nature.
“He just lived to serve,” said his pastor, the Rev. Wayne Rutherford of LifePoint Church of the Nazarene. “That’s what brought him joy. He was just an incredible person.”
Rutherford will officiate at Wilborn’s funeral, which will take place at noon Saturday at Covington First United Methodist Church, 1113 Conyers St. Visitation is scheduled for noon-9 p.m. Friday at Lester Lackey & Sons Funeral Home, 1163 Reynolds St., Covington.
The firstborn son of Emory “Bo” and Orlean “Zell” (Smith) Wilborn, Charles took his responsibility seriously and kept an eye on the rest of the family, ensuring his five siblings didn’t get in serious trouble, said his sister Minnie Kate Wilborn, who lives in Oxford.
“We were raised by our parents, but we always had a supervisor and that was Charles,” Minnie said Tuesday. “When (they were) both away from the house, Charles was in charge. What he said goes, and he better not tell you something and you not do it.
“That’s why we all had so much respect for him, because he was almost like a parent. He was the one who used to comb my hair in the morning for school.”
However, his sister was quick to point out that Wilborn wasn’t all business. He would play ball, dance and even get the occasional “whooping” for getting in trouble with the rest of his siblings.
But he had an uncanny drive and dedication.
His drive served him well on the farm, where the family worked for its food and shelter. Though he was born in Morgan County, the family moved to rural Newton County when Wilborn was young and rented a house in the Mansfield area, Minnie said, working the land for the property’s owner, while receiving shelter and food.
Though cotton and corn were the cash crops, the
family grew all sorts of fruits and vegetables in their garden and raised chickens, pigs and a few calves. Though the Wilborns weren’t wealthy and educational opportunities were sparse, Wilborn was determined to go to college. He had to drop out of school to work on the farm, but he would later earn his high school degree at the age of 35. He later graduated with a nursing degree from DeKalb Community College, according to his daughter and a previous interview with The News.
“He set his mind to do it and that was it,” Minnie said.
Man about town
“Sometimes I used to think it’s just like a child in a toy shop; there’s so much out there, you don’t know where to stay and try everything,” said Minnie, when asked about all the jobs Wilborn held over the years. “It was just something he enjoyed doing.”
The reason so many people knew Wilborn was that he worked all around town and volunteered at even more places. He worked for years at former clothing shops downtown, including J.C. Poole Co. for 35 years and Cohen’s Men’s Shop for nine years.
One of his longtime customers was Roy Cartledge, who knew Wilborn for more than 50 years, and ordered two pairs of overalls every fall for his father’s birthday and Christmas gifts.
“He was always friendly, and always helpful with what you were looking for. Anything you wanted he would try to get for you. If there was nothing you wanted, he would see if he could get it for you. He was that type of person,” Cartledge said. “I’ve seen him a lot around town. I thought he was just a real good man, a down-toearth type.”
During part of his time at Poole’s, Wilborn also worked at People’s Drug Store and the Bibb Manufacturing Co.’s mill in Porterdale. Holding multiple jobs was a habit he kept until his death.
In recent years, Wilborn was a substitute teacher at schools around Newton County, greeter at R.L.’s Off the Square, salesman at New Shoez and a self-employed tailor, something he did for more than 60 years.
Minnie said Wilborn’s love of sewing started at a young age, and he would practice by making simple things, like pillowcases.
A man of many skills, Wilborn also was known for his cakes, coconut pies and other sweets, including orange balls, daughter Bonnie said.
“I was a picky eater, but everyone around town can tell you about it,” Bonnie said, laughing.
Wilborn loved children and served as a substitute teacher since 2001, according to the Newton County School System.
He had a particular connection to Heard-Mixon Elementary School, reading at the school himself and soliciting others to read at the schools’ annual Read Across America day. He was famous for the red-and-white striped “Cat in the Hat” style hat he wore to read to students on Dr. Seuss’s birthday.
“Each time he visited the school, whether as a community leader or substitute teacher, he was always encouraging, positive and uplifting. His love for children was apparent; he treated them with respect and expected them to show respect for themselves and others,” said Heard-Mixon Principal Marquita Wilkins.
Many people spoke about Wilborn’s unquenchable desire to serve others, as evidenced by the time he devoted to several nonprofits and government groups.
Looking out for every man
Wilborn served as a city councilman for 14 years from 1991 to 2005, and is considered the first black mayor in the city’s history by the African-American Historical Association of Newton County, according to its president Forrest Sawyer Jr.
When Wilborn was serving as mayor pro-tem, the mayor resigned, leaving Wilborn to head up the city council for several months, Sawyer said.
“Even though he wasn’t sworn in, he served as mayor until the next election,” Sawyer said.
However, the accomplishment that most sticks in Sawyer’s mind was Wilborn securing city uniforms for the city’s sanitation workers.
“They used to have to wear their own clothes, and Charles Wilborn rode on that trash truck one day and went back to the council meeting and made sure the council passed (a motion) that they would furnish uniforms for the men to wear,” Sawyer said. “He was a good guy. The humble spirit he has is something only God gives. You could always talk to him; whether you were pleased with or disagreed with him, you could always get his ear.”
A man of faith
In Wilborn’s later life, Pastor Wayne Rutherford came to know him well during the many conversations the two shared.
“He was not a man without a lot of burdens, but he carried his burdens and rose above them. His faith inspired him and through him it inspired others,” Rutherford said Tuesday.
The fact Wilborn’s smile rarely left his face was a testament to his strong spirit, as was his unique way of praying.
“People loved to hear him pray. He had such a unique and heartwarming way of talking to God; it was incredible. He always had this way when he prayed; he would start out by saying, ‘Good morning Lord, just like a personal conversation between him and God. ‘Thank you for waking us up today in our right mind and on this side of the earth,’” Rutherford recalled.
“He would always pray for the needs of the community and the needs of the world and would always say, ‘Lord, put me in the path of someone who has a need.’… He lived with a servant’s heart. He came to serve and not to be served. Everywhere he went, he was just so well thought of.
“Everybody loved him. He served with dignity, and he was a dear friend,” Rutherford said.
And that was just one of his many best friends.