Stanley Harmon Wilson: A Life Blighted and Blessed

Stanley was born in Vallejo, California in 1943. He was the first child of Beatrice and Archie Wilson and was surrounded by love. As a boy, Stanley moved a lot as Dad pastored one Nazarene church after another. The first parsonage was in Prospect, Oregon. Mom cooked on a wood stove. Milk and eggs were kept cool in a large tin box that sat in Mill Creek that ran close to the parsonage. The salary was small and irregular. Once, Dad climbed under the house to retrieve some milk bottles to turn-in so he could get milk for Stanley. Stan was blessed.

The church was poor, but the place was rich in beauty. Dad often took Stanley on nature walks through the sugar pines. Mom had been a biology major, so Stanley was encouraged to learn the names of the flowers, butterflies, and birds. Stanley’s gifts, perhaps for the rest of his life, became field guides. Stanley never lost his love of nature and books. Stanley was loved and blessed.

But Stanley was physically and socially awkward. This made him a target for bullying. He loved science but struggled with math. Teachers didn’t understand him or always know how to interpret his stubbornness—or how he could be so bright in some areas and struggle in others. Today Stanley would quickly be identified as someone with high functioning autism—what was once called Asperger’s Syndrome. Bullying and cruel teasing followed him through high school and blighted some of his childhood.

Nature became Stanley’s refuge. When Stan talked about living in Prospect, New Meadows, Wilder, Grangeville, Orofino, Pendleton and Milton-Freewater, he would talk about the butterflies and wild-flowers of each place as though they were old friends. He often marked his history according to the birds or flowers we saw together on a particular hike. He never forgot the Lewis Woodpecker and Black-chinned hummingbird we saw on the trail along the Walla Walla River in Milton-Freewater.  He was ten years older than I, so we seldom played together. But our shared love of nature bridged the gap.

Mom and Dad were patient with Stanley. Mom let him keep his pet snakes, lizards, and scorpions even though it sometimes meant finding them in odd places and times around the house. Our house always had gallon jars with holes punched in the lid, ready for the next lizard or snake Stanley caught. Once boys in my mom’s class at Myrtle Crest thought they would scare her by putting a snake in her desk drawer. She saw the snake, picked it up behind the neck, and chased the boys with it. The boys had no idea how well Stanley had trained her. Stanley was blessed by parents who loved and nurtured him.  

Stanley continued to be socially awkward after graduating from MacLoughlin High School in Milton-Freewater. He was picked on in high school and had few friends. He struggled with math and chemistry, so he avoided majoring in science when he went to Northwest Nazarene College. He majored in history and took some classes Herpetology and Ornithology. A professor there, Mick Dean, befriended Stan and encouraged his love of nature. Despite some of his struggles with math and physics, Stan ended up getting one of the highest scores of any student on his history Graduate Record Exam and was in the 90th percentile in Biology. Stan was blessed with some genuine academic success.

Stanley had received notice that he was being drafted, so he decided to enlist in the army for four years. Because of all his clumsiness, he struggled to complete basic training. He trained to be a clerk typist, but never mastered typing. He enlisted hoping to go to Germany but went to Vietnam instead. Since he couldn’t type, he was assigned guard duty. The Army put him in a tower on the perimeter of the base near the jungle. They gave him binoculars and a rifle. As an avid bird watcher, Stanley was delighted, and the Army probably had never had a more diligent guard. Stanley’s letters from Vietnam were mostly about the birds and animals he had seen. After Vietnam, Stanley was also stationed in Indianapolis and near the Pentagon where he worked filing papers. Although he certainly didn’t excel at being a soldier, he seemed to do well in the structured environment. He kept every letter he got while in the Army, and the letters made it clear that he was surrounded by prayers. Stan was blessed.

After four years in the Army, Stanley enrolled in graduate school at the University of Oregon and began work on a Master’s in history. He successfully completed all his classes and wrote a long thesis. But his sponsoring professor retired, and the new professor insisted Stanley do more interviews, make all the chapters uniform in length, and shorten his thesis. Dad helped with some of the editing. But asking someone with autism to do more interviews is like asking a person with a fear of heights to go rock-climbing. Stanley never finished his thesis or got his degree, but it is unclear what he would have done with the degree. He went to work at Agri-Pac and joined the Teamsters Union. He was a hard worker but not a skilled one.  He had good attendance. After Agri-Pac closed, Stanley never managed to hold down a job for long. He was too slow or too clumsy for most jobs. He interviewed badly, failed to make eye-contact and talked a little too loud. For many years he lived with my parents and then in different apartments in Coquille and Myrtle Point. In the area of work and a career his life was blighted.

Stanley loved God and loved God’s people, even though he was never quite sure how to make friends. He had a good voice and loved singing hymns. After Teckla and I moved back to Myrtle Point in 1993, Stanley and I continued taking hikes together, sometimes to Hanging Rock, Mount Bolivar, or Iron Mountain in the Siskiyou Mountains. Sometimes I would catch butterflies, and he would identify them. Throughout his life, Stanley was surrounded by people who loved and cared for them. And Stanley, in his own odd ways, tried to show others he cared. All the birthday cards he gave were carefully selected. He faithfully sent out Christmas cards every year. When Teckla and I had only been married a few months and had little money, Stanley gave us a couple big boxes of canned vegetables from Agri-Pac.

For years Mom and Stanley did things together: senior meals, plays, concerts, and other events. Stan helped Mom stay active and probably contributed to her long life and good health. In these years Stan was blessed with someone to do things with and was less alone. For every birthday, Mom made Stanley one or two colorful shirts from material Stanley had picked out—shirts with flowers, birds, butterflies, or animals. He wore his favorite ones until they were ragged and missing buttons. And of course, he was at our house a lot and a part of our family. Stanley was blessed with people who loved him to the end.

Stanley was a bird watcher and an excellent amateur naturalist. He never engaged in the nominal fallacy, the error of thinking he knew something just because he knew its name. Although he loved adding a new bird to his life list, he never stopped enjoying just watching the behavior of a bird, insect, or animal. He saw nature as good in itself, apart from any list he kept. He taught me that careful observation was a kind of worship, a way of joining God and saying of creation, “It is good, it is very good.”

I few days ago I came across an article explaining that botanists had discovered that the western false asphodel (triantha occidentalis) was actually a carnivorous plant that got nutrients from insects that got stuck to its stem. I immediately wanted to tell Stanley and talk about it with him. He would be the only person I knew who would find this exciting. I will miss Stanley, my friend, big brother, and my brother in Christ. But I am glad that now nothing is blighted, no potential is unrealized, all is right, and all is blessed. I am glad he is taking walks with Mom and Dad once again.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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