IN THE HONOR AND MEMORY
THE LIFE OF VIRGINIA LOUISE WILSON HILL
written by her sons
Virginia Louise Wilson was born on October 15, 1923, on a farm in Fayetteville, Arkansas to James Franklin Wilson and Nellie Anderson Wilson who were both born in the mid-1880’s. She was the twelfth of thirteen children. The Wilson family was a Scots Irish clan of farmers, arriving in America, then trekking west from northern Georgia to finally Denver, Colorado. Virginia graduated in 1941 from Arvada High School,
a suburb of Denver.
After high school she moved to Oakland, California, finding work as an operator of a bookkeeping posting machine for Standard Oil Company. She would tell us kids about the legends of the frugality and dedication to hard work of John D. Rockefeller, owner of Standard Oil, and how kept track of every penny spent, to impress on us those same values. During the time she was in Oakland she met Joseph Allen “Jack” Hill. Jack served in the Navy as an aircraft navigator in World War II, stationed at the Oakland Naval Base. They met at the Oakland Downtown City Park, probably in 1946. Jack was from Snelling, South Carolina. Sometime during this period they got engaged and boarded a train in Oakland to head toward South Carolina.
The train went through Denver so Virginia could introduce Jack to her mother Nellie. According to Virginia’s younger sister Betty things did not go well because Nellie learned that Jack had been married and widowed before and had a son, Freddie Hill. That caused quite a ruckus. In her eyes he was damaged goods and not good enough for her daughter.
This, however, did not derail the east-bound train, which terminated in Columbia, South Carolina. Jack enrolled at the University of South Carolina in electrical engineering on the GI Bill and Virginia continued working for Standard Oil in downtown Columbia.
They got married in a small ceremony at Herman Watson’s home off Rosewood Drive on August 31, 1947. Mr. Watson was a friend of my dad from university. My mother’s attendant was Thelma Hill, my father’s sister. That marriage lasted for sixty-eight- and one-half years until Jack died in March of 2016.
Jack and Virginia had four boys between 1948 and 1960. They are Thomas Wilson, John Steven, Gary Lynn, and Wesley Kent. As Virginia had learned from her own family, there is nothing more important than family and giving your highest dedication and commitment to that cause. Like many mothers in the post–World War II era she was a stay-at-home mom. As she had done all her life she worked raising her four sons. Of highest importance for Jack and Virginia was that their sons were college educated. They considered it their duty to pay for this education. In the end their four sons earned nine college degrees.
But formal education was not all. They made sure we were active in church, with Royal Ambassadors, Boy Scouts, paper routes, music lessons, and athletics among other activities as well. Virginia would review homework to make sure it was all done.
It was also never inappropriate to maintain discipline, with the belt, if necessary. As antiquated as that sounds now, it never went to excess and was, they felt, the right thing to do as they had been raised that way.
This could be a harrowing and nerve-wracking time for Virginia, staying home alone with four boys, or five when our half-brother Freddie came to live with us during his high school years. During these years our father might have been away from home on one to two nights a week traveling the central part of South Carolina selling wholesale paper products for Eppes-Fitzgerald Paper Company. Many times in her exasperation Mom would say “Wait until your Father gets home”. Looking back on that time our biggest surprise was that she came out of that time with any shred of sanity left.
With all the racism in the South in the fifties and sixties, especially in our church, they taught us to treat people under the lessons of the Golden Rule. Mom would read to us the books she was raised on. While reading Tom Sawyer she would get to the part with the n-word and she would always say “we don’t use the word”. During the short period of time, we had an African American lady in our house to help with the cleaning and washing; she was treated to the same dignity and respect as anyone else. In her final days and months at Laurel Crest she would treat the staff as some of her best friends.
After the end of the Vietnam War in the seventies our church adopted a Vietnamese family, as did many churches. Mom pitched in and worked very hard helping to set up their household and helping them become oriented to the community. She followed up with them for years afterwards. They continued to keep in contact with Virginia until her death. They would very gratefully tell people how instrumental she was in helping them settle in.
Every couple of years, Mom’s dedication to her family inspired Mom and Dad to take us all to Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Denver to visit her mother or her siblings. However, the biggest surprise was during the summer of 1964 when she piled all four of us into the car (Dad was working), and drove from Columbia to Santa Barbara, California to visit her relatives. The trip continued north to San Francisco and Sacramento. Then we headed back through Denver and Tulsa, and finally back to Columbia. The trip took more than a month. This trip seems to us today to be awfully rash, but it shows her dedication to family, strong independence, and probably an attempt at preservation of her sanity for a stay-at-home mom.
Our family joined First Baptist Church of West Columbia in early 1953. It was a vital, active congregation then with well over 1,000 members. Within a couple of years our family was in attendance whenever the doors were open: Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and spring and fall revival week. Mom pitched in every time she could teaching Sunday School, attending Women’s Missionary Union, or serving on committees, such as the redecorating committee for the sanctuary. There was much more she would have done had the male-dominated church polity not lived in such great fear of the creativity and open-minded energy that women could inject into the church community. Virginia felt great frustration over this limitation.
Virginia learned to sew as a young girl in a family with six sisters. Surely, this was a necessity for a relatively poor farm family in the early twentieth century. She continued to sew her whole life. We always had a sewing machine in our house. Our clothes never went un-altered. She took great pride in her clothes and how her boys looked.
Her interests and energy for creativity was such that she ordered and took an at-home interior design course from LaSalle University in the sixties. From then she began to sew draperies, design cornices, and design entire rooms. She was invited by several local furniture stores to set up rooms for showcase design houses. Her ability and sense of creativity did not go unnoticed, and word of mouth spread to the point that she had more requests for jobs than she could handle. One year she was contracted to make uniforms for the University of South Carolina Gamecock cheerleaders.
The size of some of her design jobs got so large that the entire walk-out basement in our house on Hummingbird Drive was dedicated to housing a twelve-foot cutting table and three sewing machines, one of which was commercial grade. She completed so many jobs and did them so tastefully and professionally that into her nineties people would bring up the fact that she had done their draperies, or those of a neighbor or relative.
She took extreme pride in each job she did. This gave her a great sense of accomplishment. It was the one thing in her life that was hers and hers alone. Even up until the day she died, she still had a sewing machine in her small apartment. It was a true part of who she was.
Upon her death, Virginia was survived by not only her four sons, but by seven grandchildren: Elizabeth, Joey, Sarah, Gant, Alex, Allyson, and Garth. She also had one great-grandson, Jack.
It seems to us that the hardest times for her were her final years. After Jack died in early 2016, Mom moved into an independent apartment at Laurel Crest Retirement Community in West Columbia. For the first time in her life it seemed to her she was truly alone. Although there were very nice people around her in a beautiful setting, it was not the close-knit feeling of her family around her. Also, she did not feel she was needed as she wanted to be, leaving her without that sense of belonging and being needed which was her sustenance.
Having reached 96 years and being alone, the further relative isolation of Covid was enough to crush most people. It certainly increased her sense of isolation, but she was strong and pulled through admirably.
As her sons, we know she taught us and gave us her all. There was nothing more important to her. She taught us loyalty, honesty, being there for each other, integrity, and love of other people. Through her we learned the real values of life.
Mom’s fear in her later days was that she would be forgotten. Mom, I promise you will not be, especially by your sons and family. It has been said that you are truly still alive as long as the last person you knew is still alive. Mom, if that is true, you will be remembered for a long time to come.
We love you, Mom.