RIP Harvey Wilbourne (1920-2015), war hero and extraordinary ordinary man

An obituary in Sunday’s Roanoke Times caught my eye, and before I knew it the tears were puddling on my toast. I’ve profiled scores of amazing people in my  career, but Harvey’s story was among my favorites. I loved his unflinching honesty. I really loved how fiercely he loved his wife.

A World War Two hero and fighter pilot, he had found himself, then in his late-80s, dreaming about the Japanese airmen he’d shot down. I remember him saying, “I can still see their faces. … They had families too.”

harveyTo which his wife, Nell, would then counter, comfortingly, “It was kill or be killed.”

Theirs was an ordinary story — a love story — I chronicled with photographer Sam Dean in 2007. They were doing what thousands in the Greatest Generation are doing or have done: moving into a better-than-average retirement community. And Nell was not thrilled in the least. She called her new much-smaller digs at Brandon Oaks “B.O.” for short.

She complained about having to give up her favorite knitting chair, which was ratty-looking and worn.

Harvey had to say goodbye to the duct-taped contraption he’d built to affix the telephone next to his recliner. They had to winnow down their massive collection of clocks. Every one of those clocks had a story, and I listened to them all.

When the movers arrived, the couple bickered gently with their grown daughter about what to keep and what to throw away.

But they were lucky people, and they knew it. When Nell couldn’t sleep the first night in their new abode, Harvey held her hand in bed till she drifted off with the aid of two Tylenol PM. They woke up the next morning to the chiming of the first clock they’d ever bought together in 1960, from a long-gone downtown department store.harvey and nell

Nell died in 2012, the not-quite-last chapter in their epic, 68-year romance. From his Air Force base at the start of the war, he had mailed her an engagement ring with a note that said, “Darling, now you know I am coming back to you.” He wired money home weekly so his mother could buy Nell an orchid to wear to church on Sunday. He named the single-seat P-51 Mustang he piloted Sulkin’ Susie in honor of Nell, whose middle name was Susan.

My newspaper columnist pal Regina Brett used to encourage me to write more stories like this — about ordinary people whose lives illuminate a cultural moment in time. The best ones are transition stories, in which people actively spar with the universal crap life throws their way, from aging parents to difficult children to the pain of losing your dream home. We should not be writing  for the politicians and officials, Regina said, but “for the waitress at Denny’s who’s been standing on her feet all day,”  and wants only to see a sliver of something hopeful, something real.

Harvey and Nell are together now, I’m sure of it, holding hands again and delighting in the holy hullabaloo of all those chiming clocks.


Roanoke Times, The (VA) – July 15, 2007

Harvey Wilbourne knows he’s a lucky man: Not every couple in their mid-80s get to move from their dream home into a comfortable — some would say posh — retirement community with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

This is what it looks like to be a privileged member of the Greatest Generation during a time when the average 65-year-old can expect to live another 19 years.

If you work hard and save carefully, if you win the lottery on matters of health and family, then it’s possible — though far from guaranteed — that you spend your twilight years perched in the catbird seat.

“They’ve had a great life with no regrets,” said their oldest daughter, Susan Gardiner, on the day of her parents’ June 25 move from their home in the Hidden Valley community to Brandon Oaks, a retirement center in Southwest Roanoke.

Harvey and his wife, Nell, have paid handsomely for a big apartment in a brand-new building, with one daily meal provided and the reassurance of nearby nursing care across the street.

Should they spill their coffee on the new white carpet, someone from the cleaning staff will arrive to shampoo the stain.

But Nell Wilbourne doesn’t feel so lucky. To her, the white walls and white carpeting imply a lack of personality. For months, she has struggled with the decision to move into a place she refers to — only half-jokingly — by its initials.

“I call it B.O.,” she said in March, shortly after they agreed to pay a $400,000-plus entrance fee. “When we built this house, I thought we would die here.

“But I guess going to B.O. is better than going straight to Evergreen” — the cemetery where many of her friends are buried.

‘We’ll keep each other’

The night before their June 25 move, Nell couldn’t sleep, couldn’t even turn over in bed. With her whole body throbbing, she thought she was having a heart attack. It was hours before she calmed down and got a grip on the real culprit: stress.

Harvey, on the other hand, had already sunk into a deep slumber, comforted by the sound of a much-needed rain. Mother Nature was finally taking care of his prized geraniums, something he hadn’t been able to do since the arthritis seized hold of his back.

They had held on to the old house for as long as they could, hiring a housekeeper and someone to mow the lawn.

But last September, doctors found a blockage in Harvey’s heart and rushed him into open-heart surgery.

Nell slept in his hospital room for two nights in a row. She had just given up driving, at the age of 86, and she was afraid to stay home alone at night.

Harvey viewed the surgery as a harbinger of things to come.

“If I had a stroke, she’d have a hard time getting back and forth to see me,” he said.

Their youngest daughter, Martha Cummings, invited them to move in with her family in Virginia Beach, but the Wilbournes couldn’t imagine reversing roles. As Nell put it: “We don’t want people to keep us. We’ll keep each other.”

They put their names on a waiting list for Westminster Canterbury, not far from Martha’s home. Westminster is a “continuum of care retirement community” — CCRCs, as they’re known — not unlike Brandon Oaks and The Glebe in Botetourt County. A burgeoning part of the elder-care industry, CCRCs offer full-service, till-death-do-you-part care that features independent apartment living, assisted living and nursing home facilities all on one campus.

Last fall, when one of their grandchildren moved to Roanoke, the Wilbournes reconsidered staying in Roanoke. It comforted them, too, that many of their former classmates from Jefferson High School were already at Brandon Oaks, where the three-story Dogwood Apartments, part of a major expansion, would open in May.

With entrance fees ranging from $94,100 to $430,000 — not including monthly fees from $1,673 to $4,363 — such options are beyond the financial scope of the average Roanoke-area retiree.

But Harvey Wilbourne had worked hard and saved even harder, retiring from Norfolk & Western Railway in 1980 when it was still Roanoke’s Big Daddy.

Although they splurged on golf, the Wilbournes lived simply. The ranch house they’d built 35 years before had its share of homemade contraptions, including a wall-mount phone that Harvey duct-taped to an end table beside his favorite chair.

And Harvey hadn’t just enjoyed the horticultural challenge of over-wintering his 75 geraniums in the crawl space underneath the house. It saved money, too, because he didn’t have to replace them every year.

With a railroad pension and a home that had more than quadrupled in value, the Wilbournes were able to pick from the priciest housing options, with the provision that their daughters would inherit 90 percent of the entrance fee upon their deaths. (In general, the less expensive the entrance fee, the smaller the refund.)

The deal was clinched when Brandon Oaks called to say an apartment was available on the northeast side with a balcony — perfect light for the begonias Harvey was planning to move with him.

But Nell was the hard sell of the two. “Look at the porch we have now,” she said in March, pointing to Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance. “Look at that view.”

A mile away, from the Brandon Oaks apartment balcony, she could make out the mountains if she squinted.

More prominent was the building that loomed from the other side of Brandon Avenue, that other portent of things to come: the Brandon Oaks nursing center.

And what would happen to all of their antique clocks? The couple had collected 55 in all, some dating to the early 1900s, including a favorite from an old train station in Ivor.

Their apartment at B.O. has room for a few, she said. “Maybe six if we’re lucky.”

Thinking of Nell

During their first two decades of marriage, the couple moved eight times for the railroad, where Harvey had worked his way up to department head.

When N&W moved him back to Roanoke in 1969, the longtime golfers joined Hidden Valley Country Club so Harvey could knock a few balls around during lunch. Every day, Nell made him a tuna-salad sandwich to eat at his desk so he wouldn’t waste his lunch hour eating.

It was during lunch one day when Harvey spotted the lot for sale. He nabbed it — for $6,000 — before the week was out. They paid $50,000 to have the house built.

It was a three-bedroom ranch designed to spotlight its location: The back yard spilled onto the No. 7 hole at Hidden Valley Country Club.

“7th Heaven,” said the homemade sign next to their Keagy Road mailbox, and to the Wilbournes it wasn’t just a pun.

Nearly every day for more than 30 years, the Wilbournes golfed from their back yard. On Saturdays, they hit 36 holes.

When they weren’t playing golf, they were watching it from their glassed-in sun porch. “Made with double-glass Thermapane windows,” he recalled.

A 14-year-old duffer once made the mistake of using a three-wood on the hole behind their house, sailing the ball smack into the glass. “It didn’t break, but he should’ve used a soft pitching wedge,” Harvey said.

The couple were adamant about golf and even more adamant about golf-course navigation: Carts were for sissies. Even in their early 80s, the Wilbournes walked the course — and usually together.

“We’re a duo,” Nell likes to say, their bond forged even before they married in 1944. As a World War II fighter pilot, Harvey flew a single-seat P-51 Mustang named Sulkin’ Susie in honor of Nell, whose middle name is Susan. He wired his mother money to buy Nell an orchid to wear to church every Sunday.

There was less than a 50 percent chance he would come back from the war, and in Harvey’s squadron the numbers were even more grim: Eight pilots from his original group of 32 survived.

“I’m coming back for you,” he wrote, before flying his plane overseas.

Harvey flew 83 combat missions over India, Burma and the Chinese border, shooting down four Japanese planes. Lately, he finds himself cogitating on those days.

“I guess it’s natural at my age,” he said. “I think about those pilots I shot down. They had families, too, I know.”

“Yes, but it was kill or be killed,” Nell interjected. “You know that.”

Between his clock-winding every Wednesday and Saturday, between his meal routines (a turkey-bacon biscuit every morning), between wishing he felt good enough to get back on the golf course — this is what Harvey does more than anything else: worry about Nell.

They’ve been married 63 years.

“We’re still so in love,” he said recently. “I know that sounds so corny, but it’s the truth.”

Moving day

It took six strapping young men from Virginia Varsity Transfer four hours to move just about all the couple’s belongings. The Wilbournes’ daughters came from their homes in Arlington and Virginia Beach to help direct traffic and to wrap pendulums from fragile clocks — and to persuade their parents to winnow down their stuff.

There was the rickety plant stand that had held so many geraniums: “Let Mom pick out a new one of those for your new balcony,” Martha said to her father. “Of all the things you have, it’s really one of the least attractive.”

Harvey relented, finally, but only because the stand held bricks to keep it stabilized, and he didn’t want the movers to have to haul bricks.

There were the chairs Harvey had nabbed years ago when the railroad decommissioned the Powhatan Arrow, its luxury passenger train: “Are you sure you want to take those old railroad chairs?” Susan asked.

The upholstery was ratty and dated, and most of their space at Brandon Oaks was spoken for already with other, better-looking things. (Susan and her husband are buying 7th Heaven to renovate and rent out and, in a few years, they’ll retire and move into it themselves.)

The train chairs remained behind, destined for Harvey-doesn’t-know-where.

There was the holey recliner next to the duct-taped phone: “That’s my knitting chair, and we’re not taking it?” Nell huffed, when Susan told the movers to leave it behind. “It’s my favorite chair.”

“But you’ve got no place to put it, Mom,” Susan reminded her.

Nell waved her arms, another battle lost.

“We’re not going to be very comfortable at B.O. without our old stuff,” she said. “I may have to come back here and spend the night.”

That afternoon, Harvey and Nell sat in the den of their new Dogwood apartment. The furniture looked crowded in the space — a fact duly noted by Nell — and when she reclined in her leather chair, as she is wont to do, it hit the wall.

She didn’t say it, but Harvey knew what she was thinking: The knitting chair would’ve fit better.

Sleepless again

That first night at Brandon Oaks, Nell couldn’t sleep. Which meant that Harvey couldn’t sleep. “I tried to see that she was settled in before I dropped off,” he explained the next day.

As they lay together in the dark, Nell whispered to him: “When are we going to go home?”

“We are home,” he said.

He patted her on the back, squeezed her hand.

The next day, the daughters returned to hang clocks and pictures, and then old friends — some from their Jefferson High School days — started knocking on their door.

The begonias were placed in the northeast sun, and the leather recliner, although it had never been her favorite, was pulled out an inch from the wall.

The second night, Nell took a Tylenol P.M. and slept seven hours in a row. She woke up to the chiming of a mantel clock — the first one they ever bought, circa-1960, from a long-gone department store.

Harvey had moved it himself the day before, still wound and running. Nine of the 55 clocks made the move.

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