89 years young

My long-time music therapy friend Wilbur Lee Hargis celebrates his 89th birthday in July. As Wilbur would tell you, “I was born on the eleventh of July in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-eight.” The story of Wilbur’s life is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. My husband Ed Knoll and I met Wilbur in 1975 when we worked on staff of the Texas Center for the Blind at Texas Lions Camp in Kerrville, TX. Ed was Wilbur’s orientation and mobility instructor and I was his music therapist. Wilbur lost his sight when he was in early elementary school. “I was running across the street and a car crashed right into me. My mama started screaming and she cried all day long.” The accident caused neurological damage and severely restricted Wilbur’s peripheral vision, causing him to see as if looking through a straw. But, more importantly, public schools in the 1930’s didn’t accept students who were significantly visually impaired, so, as Wilbur says, “They turned me out of school.” And 80 years later, that rejection still breaks his heart. “I could have learned,” he says, “but they wouldn’t let me come into the school.” His parents took care of him and a bunch of brothers and sisters living in Fabens, TX on the Rio Grande near El Paso. His dad hauled cotton bales, helped build railroad tracks, and drove a truck. Wilbur’s heart was broken again as a young teenager when his mama died suddenly. “She was cutting my hair,” said Wilbur, “and she just fell down…just like that.” Because his dad couldn’t take care of all the kids while working, Wilbur was sent to Austin State School where he lived “with a whole bunch of wild boys. They locked us in so we couldn’t go to the bathroom or nothing.” When I asked Wilbur what he did during the day, he said, “We didn’t do much, but I liked listening to the radio if the boys would leave it alone.” Despite these heartbreaks and desolate times, Wilbur maintains a positive attitude about life and a great sense of humor. He talks about his time at Texas Lions Camp in Kerrville in 1975 with great fondness, and is especially proud of the time a bunch of us hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock. “I made it all the way to the top of that very tall mountain,” he brags. Our buddy remembers going to the Alamo and the State Capitol on Austin – in the red shirt in the photo – and he talks about walking every day with his friend Ed Knoll. Wilbur remembers Miss Cathy “teaching me to make real music on that autoharp.” Ed and I lost track of Wilbur when he left Kerrville, but he tells me he eventually moved to Angelo State School, then, in about 2005 or so, moved to Rock House group home here in Stephenville. One day he decided to come with his friend Ernestine to Special Joy, a Sunday morning gathering for individuals with special needs we have at Faith Lutheran Church. I don’t know who was more surprised when he walked in the door – Ed and I when we saw our long-lost friend, Wilbur, or Wilbur when he heard the voices of his long-lost friends, Ed and Cathy. Because Ed and I weren’t yet married when we knew him in Kerrville, Wilbur called me “Cathy Dolan” when he heard my voice. What a blessing to cross paths again! Over the years, Wilbur has enjoyed playing his guitar at Monday Music Jam with other adult friends for music therapy, and sometimes staying for supper with Ed and me. He has enjoyed occasional outings – fishing, ice cream, and 4th of July snappers and sparklers. When Ed lit his first sparkler several years ago, Wilbur said, “Looks like a candle. Next week is my birthday, you know. I was just a little baby in 1928, so I don’t remember being born.” Wilbur lives at Senior Care Center now in his very own room. He worries about his friends who don’t eat enough at meals, keeps track of all the happenings, and keeps the staff on their toes. I take Wilbur on a long, brisk walk in his wheelchair every week and share open-tuned guitar and other experiences with him frequently. My husband Ed and I are honored to give him a ride and sit with him during worship on Sundays. We all thank Wilbur for being in our lives and for inspiring us to view every glass as half full rather than half empty. Happy 89th birthday, Wilbur Lee Hargis, and may God fill your days with toe-tapping music, sunshine, good friends, lots of laughs, comfort and joy, and many blessings.
NOTE: This is an update of a story written in 2015. Wilbur Hargis gives permission to share these photos and the details of his life with the general public.