A changed heart: Oxonian’s life bettered by helping others recover from Hurricane Harvey

Posted on May 3 2018 - 5:50am by Lana Ferguson

Explore “After the Storm” for more stories, videos and interactive content chronicling Oxonians’ relief efforts in Orange, Texas.

Harold Wilson still sits next to his wife Ann in the sixth pew of Oxford’s First Baptist Church every Sunday, like always. He’s still dressed sharp, wearing pleated pants and a pocket square, like always. He still greets everyone with a smile and a wave, like always.

From the outside Wilson looks the same as always. Take a closer look, though.

Until about a year ago, 76-year-old Wilson had always lived a life of comfort, wealth and ease. Then, he nearly lost it all.

He was working on the flowers in the garden with Ann, like they do most days, when he couldn’t feel his right leg anymore.

Harold and Ann Wilson talk about plants blooming in their garden as they finish pulling weeds one afternoon. Photo by: Marlee Crawford

“It’s like it wasn’t there,” Wilson said. “I got up, hobbled around to the carport where Ann was and told her that something had happened, and I didn’t really know what it was.”

She handed him a soda in hopes that would help, but he couldn’t close his hand around the bottle and spilled it all over himself.

“I think I’ve had a stroke,” he said.

Within 10 minutes Wilson was in the emergency room. He would recover, and as he did, he began to think that maybe that stroke carried a message.

“God was really good to the Wilsons,” he said. “I jokingly say this, but I am serious when I say it. I can talk. I can see. I can walk. I can think. I can do all the things I could do before I had the stroke, and most people who have strokes can’t do that.”

Wilson has marked that day on his internal calendar and circled it in red.

“It’s not about me, and the sad thing is when it takes you until you’re 70 years old to realize that,” Wilson said. “I thank God for the realization of it now.”

Despite he and his wife being loyal to the church all their lives, Wilson had been quietly wrestling with his faith for some time. After his stroke, he was planted more firmly in God’s word than ever and wanted to make it public.

So, he was baptized again.

“I remember thinking that if you can’t remember the day of your baptism and if you can’t have memories of the most special time in a Christian’s life, then you ought to do it again,” Wilson said.

Last August, Hurricane Harvey’s rain moved across southern Texas and didn’t stop for several days, washing away cars, seeping into homes and ruining everything in its soggy path.

Harold Wilson and Lanny Shackelford stand in front of the Oxford First Baptist Church months after returning from Orange, Texas. They went as acquaintances and came back close friends. Photo by: Marlee Crawford

Oxford’s First Baptist Church began sending cohorts of volunteers to help in Orange, Texas as soon as it could. But the town wouldn’t be fixed overnight. Recovering from a flood is difficult. It takes time. It takes money. It takes manpower.

Wilson wanted to help provide some of those things, but it took him a while to decide to volunteer himself to go.

“He got the idea, and he thought about it,” Ann said. “We talked about it. At first he really wanted to go, but then it was like he had to go. There was no stopping him.”

Wilson said he could hear God tell him, “Harold Wilson, get off your lazy butt and do something for someone other than yourself.”

So, in early September, roughly a month after Harvey hit, Wilson traveled with another volunteer, Lanny Shackelford, to the small refinery town in Texas’ southeast corner.

They spent five straight days working in the hot Texas sun repairing a couple’s home during the daytime and sleeping on FEMA mattresses in North Orange Baptist Church at night.

Harold Wilson (right) holds a garbage bag for homeowner John Fortenberry to put ruined insulation in during the disaster relief efforts in Orange, Texas last fall. Masks were worn to protect against mold in the houses. Photo by: Marlee Crawford

Shackelford, a construction veteran, was well-versed in mission work and rebuilding projects, but for Wilson it was all new.

Their project was to finish gutting a house. By the time they arrived, the homeowners had already begun tearing out wet sheetrock, cabinets and countertops and other bits and pieces. All of it would end up in a pile for a FEMA truck to eventually pick up and carry away.

“We were going to take these people’s life and put it out on the street,” Wilson said. “It was so totally, completely alien to anything I’d ever done.”

To his surprise, he excelled at the work he had to do.

One of his tasks was to cart waterlogged sheetrock from the couple’s carport to the ever-growing pile on the street each time the wheelbarrow filled up.

Harold Wilson takes a break from working in the Fortenberry’s house last fall. Photo by: Marlee Crawford

The first time he did this, Wilson gripped the wheelbarrow’s handles and looked ahead. The pile was uphill.

“When I started up the hill, I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this,’ and I just said, ‘You know, God, if you want me to get this up the hill, I’ve got have a little help.’ So, all of a sudden I pushed it up the hill and then probably 50 times after that over the next five days,” Wilson said.

Every now and then, he would stop his work and take a photo with his phone. Struggling to find the words to describe everything he was seeing and experiencing, Wilson hoped these images would help when he came back home and shared his story.

Those photos are still on his phone. Every time he has gone to delete older pictures, his finger pauses over them, but he keeps scrolling.

At the end of each day of volunteering, Wilson would pace in the parking lot as he talked on the phone with Ann. After more than 55 years of marriage, it’s hard to be away.

He cried every time she said, “Hello.”

“She wanted me to explain to her why I was so emotional, and I couldn’t,” he said. “It was harder for her than (for) me because I couldn’t explain what we were going through – what we were seeing. She handled it like a trooper, like she always does.”

Wilson’s first night back in his own bed was spent tossing and turning throughout the night. He couldn’t stop thinking of the piles of ruined belongings on the sides of the roads, the smell of the growing mold tingled in his nostrils and the faces of survivors burned into his mind.

Wilson’s work in Orange didn’t stop when he left. There was at least one more thing to check off his list.

The homeowners Wilson helped during his stay, John and Sybil Fortenberry, lead Calvary Baptist Church in Deweyville, Texas, just a few minutes up the road from their house. This was the second flood the church had recently experienced, and a lot was lost this time around, including their pews.

Wilson had to do something more to help them.

Wilson got back to Oxford on a Saturday night, and at church the next morning, he approached his pastor, Don Gann, about the trip. The conversation kept circling back to the Fortenberrys’ church, when missions pastor Jeff Holeman walked up.

Holeman told Wilson the congregation had just raised money for a disaster relief fund and asked if he would want to give the money, about $26,000, to that cause.

Without hesitation, Wilson said yes.

After ripping away things and memories from their homes, people spray painted words like this to let FEMA know what’s now trash in Orange, Texas, weeks after Hurricane Harvey swept through in September. Photo by Marlee Crawford

“First Baptist Church of Oxford sent them every dime we had collected, and that got their church open and operating again,” Wilson said, with tears welling in his eyes. “I will remember that for my whole life.”

Gann said he saw a change in Wilson after his time in Orange.

“I think the thing that happened in Orange was that he really saw that he could do something to help people, and God really used him to do that,” Gann said. “There are opportunities to utilize the gifts and talents that God’s given you in a lot of different ways, and Harold is a great example of that. Harold’s not a construction guy or anything like that, so it’s not like he came in with a hammer on his belt or anything, but he was just willing to do it.”

Wilson said that, these days, he tries to do something every day to make the world a better place than it was before or say something to someone that will make them a better person.

So much so, he is went through training to become a full-time member of the Mississippi Baptist Disaster Relief team this month.

“He’s my hero,” Ann said. “He’s always been my hero. He’s not perfect, but that makes him a better hero, because you climb to become better, and he has. I am proud of him, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”

That’s all Wilson has hoped for.

“First of all, I hope God can see the difference in Harold Wilson, and I hope my family can,” he said. “Beyond that, everybody can handle it on their own. I look at myself in the mirror, and I see a different person.”