On Giv­ing Tues­day, he gave 1,085 fire vic­tims $1,000 each

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Cathy Free

Cal­i­for­nia’s Par­adise High School foot­ball team had a stel­lar sea­son, earn­ing the Bob­cats a play­off slot ear­lier this month. But the Bob­cats missed the game.

“By then, al­most the en­tire team was home­less,” re­ported the Los An­ge­les Times, which de­tailed how the Camp Fire rav­aged the town of Par­adise and left about 90 per­cent of its stu­dents with­out a home.

Cal­i­for­nia busi­ness­man and restau­rant owner Bob Wil­son read the story about the teens — about how they scat­tered with their fam­i­lies look­ing for roofs over their heads, about how they were reg­u­lar kids one day and their lives were up­ended the next. The school shut down. It was un­cer­tain how the se­niors would even grad­u­ate.

“I felt ter­ri­ble for them,” Wil­son told The Wash­ing­ton Post. “I couldn’t stop think­ing, ‘How can I help?’ ”

So he took out his check­book and wrote a $1,000 check — then an­other and an­other and an­other — 1,085 of them in all. He wrote one for each of the school’s 980 stu­dents and 105 teach­ers, ad­min­is­tra­tors, cus­to­di­ans and bus drivers from Par­adise High School.

And he de­liv­ered them on Giv­ing Tues­day.

“Good in­ten­tions are just good in­ten­tions un­less you act on them,” said Wil­son, an 89-year-old real es­tate de­vel­oper who co-owns a chain of Fish Mar­ket restau­rants and shut­tles be­tween homes in Los An­ge­les and San Diego.

Wil­son spent hours in his Los An­ge­les of­fice stuff­ing en­velopes with checks — worth a to­tal of $1.1 mil­lion — and placed them into two suit­cases be­fore trav­el­ing more than 500 miles to the city of Chico, near Par­adise, to hand them out.

He does not oth­er­wise have a con­nec­tion to Par­adise.

Par­adise stu­dents haven’t been able to re­turn to school since Nov. 8, when the Camp Fire raged through North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, killing nearly 90 peo­ple, de­stroy­ing 14,000 homes and send­ing res­i­dents flee­ing for their lives. On Mon­day, stu­dents will re­sume classes in a Chico shop­ping mall, 15 miles away.

Wil­son said he was touched by their story be­cause he imag­ined him­self as a teenager — look­ing for­ward to the foot­ball play­offs, ex­cited about prom — but then los­ing ev­ery­thing.

“It’s hard to think of any­thing more dif­fi­cult than los­ing your home and ev­ery­thing you own, es­pe­cially when you’re en­joy­ing your high school years,” he said.

He thought $1,000 would help stu­dents buy new clothes, shoes and lap­tops, or they could choose to give the money to their par­ents for gas, gro­ceries and other ex­penses.

“I de­cided that if I could just put a smile on their faces and give them the free­dom to do what­ever they wanted with the money, that would make me happy,” he said.

Wil­son’s own teen years were the best time of his life, he said, es­pe­cially his se­nior year on the foot­ball team at Es­con­dido High School near San Diego.

Raised on a small farm with two sib­lings, “my high school ex­pe­ri­ence was the first, last and only care­free time I’ve ever known,” said Wil­son, who grad­u­ated in 1947. “Sports, dances and hang­ing out. That’s what high school is about.”

Par­adise High School Prin­ci­pal Loren Lighthall said he was over­whelmed by Wil­son’s gen­eros­ity.

“What he’s done is awe­some,” Lighthall said.

Wil­son handed out the checks Tues­day at a pizza party held at Chico High School. He pointed out that only half of the money came from him; the other half is from his 90-year-old wife, Mar­ion Wil­son, who suf­fers from Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

Stu­dents found a let­ter from Wil­son tucked in­side their en­velopes, wrapped around each check. The notes read, in part: “My age would prob­a­bly place you not as a grand­child, but a great-grand­child if you were part of my fam­ily. Please know that you are not alone, as some­one as far away as San Diego is root­ing for you and has the firm be­lief that to­mor­row will be bet­ter than to­day.”

NELVIN C. CEPEDA/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRI­BUNE

In to­tal, busi­ness­man Bob Wil­son do­nated $1.1 mil­lion to 980 stu­dents and 105 staffers at Par­adise High School.

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