June 9, 2004
Statue honors hospital's beloved first chairman
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—The statue of Earl R. Wilson that was recently installed on the second floor at Methodist Rehabilitation Center is bringing back fond memories for many employees who knew the hospital’s first board chairman.
“When I look at that sculptor, I can’t help but remember that because of his vision and dedication we now have one of the finest institutions in America,” said executive assistant Lois Willis. “His commitment enabled thousands of individuals to have a more productive and fulfilling life.”
Even before he was asked to help bring a specialty hospital to the state, Wilson knew on a deeply personal level of Mississippi’s need for a facility where people could learn to triumph over brain and spinal cord injuries. His own father was left speechless by a stroke at an early age, and through his travels as a businessman, Wilson met many families who were struggling to provide proper care for loved ones with devastating disabilities.
“I think the fact that our father suffered a stroke at a relatively young age motivated Earl,” said his brother, Bob Wilson. “He wanted to be able to help people in that situation so they wouldn’t have to deal with what we faced: a father who could no longer speak to us, a man who was not able to reach his full potential.”
At a series of Sunday morning breakfast meetings in the 60s, Wilson joined with fellow board of trustee members Hilton L. Ladner, Frank E. Hart Sr. and Dr. Jesse L. Wofford to lay the groundwork for the center. Wilson was named Methodist’s first board chairman and his wise and unwavering leadership remained a guiding force for the center’s success until his death in September, 2000.
“This center was the center of Mr. Wilson’s life,” said Willis.
The voracious reader often clipped out articles he thought would be of interest to hospital president and CEO Mark Adams. And in his later years, Mr. Wilson frequently dropped by to discuss ideas over lunch. “Earl was my mentor and friend,” Adams said. “As we worked together on plans for the hospital, he would joke: ‘You better move this project along a little faster. At my vintage, I don’t have much time.’ ”
Of course, everyone knew that Wilson would clear his schedule for Methodist business. In the center’s critical formative years, he took time from his busy oil business to attend Legislative meetings. Commuted back and forth to Washington D.C. to solicit federal funding. And used his influence to inspire others to commit their own energies to the cause. “He was known as a motivator for things he loved, and he loved the rehab center,” said his wife Martha Wilson.
That dedication never wavered, even after Wilson had a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. “That’s when the doctor said you need to slow down and smell the roses and he said: I’ll smell the roses, but I’m not slowing down,” remembers Mrs. Wilson. “He started wearing a rose every day.”
In those days, Wilson was a much a part of Methodist scenery as the daily rose arrangement that now honors his memory. “He practically stopped by the hospital every day,” Mrs. Wilson said. “Every time he would see a patient on the elevator he would ask: ‘Are they treating you right? If they aren’t, you let me know.’ He also used to say, ‘I hope I tell the volunteers thank you enough for all the things they do. He thought they were wonderful.’ ”
That caring concern extended to employees, as well. “I felt like in addition to being chairman of the board that he was a friend,” said Dennis Cagle, director of physical plant. “I had the feeling he felt the same way about employees here. He always had time for whatever you needed and you could talk to him about anything any time.”
“He was special and made you feel special,” said Charlotte Fitzgerald, PBX operator. “He had praise for everything you did. He gave you the feeling that when he was around, everything was alright.”
George Patterson, safety and security officer, described Wilson as a “wonderful icon” and said he served as a great example. “I would want to take after him.”
Although a man of many successes, Wilson never relished the limelight. But he did wish for national acclaim for the hospital. As he contemplated retiring as chairman of the board in 2000, he wanted more than anything to see Methodist named one of America’s best hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. When word came in July, 2000 that the hospital would be the first in Mississippi to make the prestigious list, Earl was ecstatic, said Mrs. Wilson. “It was really something that they got the recognition just before Earl died. I’m glad he got to see it because that was his dream.”
Wilson’s influence continues today through the Wilson Research Foundation, which was created to improve the lives of the physically disabled through research in medical, educational and clinical applications. The H.F. McCarty, Jr. Family Foundation generously donated $500,000 in 1989 to establish the foundation to honor Earl and Martha Wilson’s service to the physically disabled in Mississippi. Mrs. Wilson and daughter Ginny Wilson Mounger are members of the foundation’s Board of Governors. Daughter Ann Wilson Holifield serves on Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s Board of Trustees.
About the Sculptor
A native of Greenville, William N. Beckwith earned a Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture from the University of Mississippi in 1976 and that same year established the first commercial fine arts bronze foundry in the state. Today, Beckwith practices his craft at Vulcan Studios and Foundry in Taylor and teaches sculpting classes part-time at Ole Miss.
He has received many accolades for his artistry, including being recognized for Civic Leadership in the Arts by the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Beckwith got to know Earl Wilson when he was commissioned to create a sculpture of the Wilson’s three grandchildren for the atrium lobby of Methodist Rehabilitation Center. And he says he’ll forever be grateful for Wilson’s recognition of his talent and his ongoing support.
As he worked in his studio on Wilson’s statue, Beckwith said many visitors would recognize Mr. Wilson by his smile and trademark rose and share a story of how he had helped them overcome a hardship. “One lady got very emotional and said: ‘He changed my life.’ I said: ‘Well, he changed mine, too.’ It seemed the more people he helped, the happier he got.”