Dr. John Wilson, local humanitarian, dies at 99

Barbara Hootman

The late Dr. John Wilson was a man who believed in helping others learn to help themselves. He put into practice the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Throughout Wilson’s 99 years, he was a soldier, physician, humanitarian, husband, father, and community volunteer who tried to make life better for others.

The son of missionaries, Wilson learned early in life that it was important to enrich the lives of others. He spent a lifetime enriching the lives of not only individuals but communities in the United States and abroad.

Wilson’s mother Bess Knox and his father Dr. Robert Manton Wilson met and married in Korea while Robert Wilson, a pioneer in the field of leprosy who established Korea’s largest leporsarium, was doing missionary work there for the Southern Presbyterian Church. John Wilson was born in Korea on May 29, 1916.

Ruth Graham Bell, a child of Presbyterian missionaries herself who later married Billy Graham, and Wilson became friends while attending Pyengyang Foreign School in Korea, from which Wilson graduated. He continued his education in the United States at Davidson College and Philadelphia’ Jefferson Medical School. While working at Montreat during the summer of 1940, he met Nancy Dupuy. They were married eight years later. Medical school and World War II intervened.

Wilson was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Army and returned to Korea for two year to join his father, who oversaw some 10,000-12,000 leprosy patients. John Wilson left the Army in 1947 as a captain and returned to Richmond, Virginia where he completed his medical residency. He began a private practice in Greensboro. After a stint in Kentucky he opened a private medical practice in Black Mountain. He and his family settled in in 1976.

He specialized in pediatrics. “I love little children and baby ducks,” he was fond of saying.

“Once we had Dr. Wilson and his wife Nancy over for dinner,” said Diana McCall, the current garden manager. “I made blackberry cobbler for dessert, which Dr. Wilson proclaimed to be his favorite. He had been telling jokes to my three children throughout dinner, so by the dessert course, our oldest was getting a little skeptical of anything he had to say. Dr. Wilson leaned over to her and slyly said, ‘You know what a blackberry cobbler louse is?’ Eyebrows raised, our daughter shook her head no. ‘There’s one right there,’ he exclaimed and dug his spoon into her whipped cream and cobbler and swiftly placed it into his mouth as though he had just saved her from great danger.”

In the 1980s, he retired from medical practice. Rediscovering his love of gardening, he started Black Mountain’s first community garden on his property overlooking Lake Tomahawk. Neighbors and friends joined him in the garden to grow vegetables.

The original community garden is still producing, although Wilson’s vision grew into The Dr. John Wilson Community Garden on 1.25 acres of city property along the Swannanoa River, off White Pine Drive.

In 2004, the first year of the community garden was on city land, Wilson grew produce to donate. He worked 40-50 hours (sometimes more) in the garden each week, often assisted by volunteers from Warren Wilson College and The Learning Community School students. The first year the garden donated 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry. Wilson’s vision of teaching people to grow their own foodwas growing.

McCall entered its life in 2005. Already a recognized chef and lifelong gardener, she set out to make the garden productive while educating the community. Although Wilson stopped physically working in the community garden in his mid-90s, his vision remained a strong presence.

“Dr. Wilson was my mentor, but most significantly, he was a cherished friend to whom I am deeply grateful,” McCall said. “The beauty and simplicity of his vision, that we give people a place to grow food, that we educate how to grow our food, and that we share what we grow with others, has given me meaningful work for over 10 years. As well, I am grateful for being able to raise my children in the garden and for the strong and vibrant community his vision has fostered.”

In 1998, Wilson’s concerns about the Korean people starving to death motivated him to start a campaign to help North Koreans learn to grow their own food. He designed the greenhouses for the project, and as the project progressed some 600 small greenhouses were shipped to the country’s rest homes and hospitals for tuberculosis patients. The goal of the so-called Pyongyang Project was to supply every farmer in North Korea with a greenhouse. In North Korea, Wilson taught the people “the cut and come again” method of growing vegetables in unheated greenhouses.

Wilson said he was having a good time and considered the greenhouse project to be a hobby. “If you stay busy you will be healthier and happy,” he told the Black Mountain News in June 1998.

Wilson’s neighbors held him in as high a regard as his fellow gardeners did.

“We have been blessed to know John for almost 30 years,” Joni Klein, the daughter of a longtime foster parent, said. “He and Nancy (Wilson’s wife) were always so generous and kind. They would help you in any way they could. Often he would check over one of our foster babies if the child was sick or hurt. If one of us didn’t feel well, John would check us out. One time he walked over to our house (on the other side of Lake Tomahawk) through two feet of snow to help us.”

As Wilson reached his 90s, Klein assisted him in his garden at home.

“He had many interests including birds, gardening, woodworking, hymn singing. And he loved children. It was a joy to watch him talking to a group of children at the primrose bed. He was always working on a new project for the neighborhood, town and throughout the world.”

Wilson loved the Missouri Primrose. He planted them in his garden and spoke with the people who admired them as the blossoms opened at dusk. He could count on thousands of blooms on any night during the summer. He gave seeds to people from all over the globe.