January 30, 2015

Roosevelt Wilkerson (1945-2015)

Source: The Dallas Morning News

From Dallas homeless man to international headline - that was Roosevelt Wilkerson’s journey in the summer of 2007, when then-President George W. Bush presented to Pope Benedict XVI one of Wilkerson’s hand-carved walking sticks inscribed with the Ten Commandments. “I’m just dumbfounded,” the then-62-year-old Wilkerson told The Dallas Morning News at the time. “It’s a big honor to me. I don’t know what to say.” Soon after, Laura Bush’s friend and SMU sorority sister Susan Nowlin began selling the so-called Moses Sticks, and Roosevelt and his wife Dorothy made enough to get off the streets and move into a home off Ross Avenue. And a Brooklyn director began work on a film about Wilkerson: Stickman.

“His story was just amazing,” Nowlin says today. “Just incredible.”

But it came to an end earlier this week, following the 70-year-old Wilkerson’s month-long battle with cancer. He died Monday at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, with his wife at his side.

The Dallas Morning News wrote about Wilkerson long before Bush, the Pope, Colin Powell and other world leaders and athletes began collecting his walking sticks. He first appeared in this newspaper in December 1997, when he was spending nights at the Austin Street Shelter and his days in a garage down an alley near Haskell and Main. His work was being displayed at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library as part of a homeless-artists exhibition assembled by the Stewpot. Even then he was known as Stickman.

“So deep is his concentration that a passer-by can startle him, cause him to jump as if a shot has been fired,” wrote Deborah Vorhees in a profile of Wilkerson that appeared the following month. “Then he’ll stoop back over his work, carving and muttering that a person should announce themselves, ’cause he might throw something at them.”

“It all just comes out of my noggin,” he said of his work. “I didn’t look through a book to get ‘em.” When asked later why he carved the Ten Commandments into the sticks, Wilkerson replied, “I’ve probably broken every commandment, and I asked God to forgive me.”

In late 1997, Bush, then the governor of Texas, already had one of Wilkerson’s sticks. That’s how Nowlin found out about him: Laura invited her and other sorority sisters to the Texas Governor’s Mansion in Austin before Christmas 1997 and showed off his handiwork.

“Laura said, ‘I want to show you the coolest thing George was just presented — it’s this Ten Commandments walking stick carved by a homeless man,’” Nowlin says. “She said George got it as a thank-you. I asked where it’s from. She said Dallas, and she told me who to call: Pam Nelson.”

The Bushes were so impressed with Wilkerson’s craftsmanship, they added one of the sticks to a collection of walking sticks that belonged to prior governors. Several of Wilkerson’s walking sticks still lean against the fireplace at the Crawford ranch of George W. and Laura Bush.

Eventually, Nowlin found her way to the workshop in the alley, where she visited him once a week to buy walking sticks, $35 each.

“I followed the instructions to find him: ‘Go down this street, then an alley, and near a parked car call out his name,’” Nowlin recounts. “So I go down the alley and call out his name, and he jumps out of this garage with a stick in one hand and a knife in the other. That was the beginning of our friendship. I asked if I came back one week later at the same time — Wednesday at 1 o’clock — could he have one of those sticks for me. I said, ‘I will give you $35.’ He kept shaking his head, like, ‘Mmmm hmmm.’ His wife was laying on an old mattress in this old garage in this alley next to some broken glass.

“I went back the next week, and he was there, pacing. I did that for six weeks: ‘Could you do another one?’ I never told my husband. But finally, he discovered all the sticks I was accumulating. I told him the story. He said, ‘Are you going to spend $35 for one stick every week for the rest of your life?’”

Which is how theirs became a business partnership, and how Wilkerson earned enough to get off the streets.

“It was his earned money that paid for everything,” Nowlin says. “I am talking utilities, cable TV, living expenses beyond just those basics. The other wonderful thing about Roosevelt and Dorothy was what contented people they are and were. One time, many, many years ago, I said, ‘Now, Roosevelt, I need to make sure you have some money in your pocket. He said no. He said, ‘When I have money in my pocket, then the devil starts talking to me.’ That just showed such discipline. He knew that had been an issue with him for a long time, so I was very admiring of that.”

The Bushes brought Wilkerson’s work to international prominence by giving Pope Benedict one of his sticks with the Ten Commandments carved into it.

“It’s a shepherd’s staff, really,” Laura Bush said on Friday. “So we were proud to give one of Roosevelt’s sticks to the Pope.”

Not long after that, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Margaret Galbraith became interested in telling his tale. She has spent the last several years working on Stickman, which is all but finished save for a few final touches which she needs help funding, including rights to TV footage and some animation she’d like to include. A Kickstarter a few years ago stalled, which has delayed the documentary’s completion. The only footage released so far are the few minutes you see below.

“The crew was so taken by him, inspired by him, moved by him,” Galbraith says. “There was something endearing about him. He pulled you in. And he had quite a journey.”

The director wanted only one more thing — for Wilkerson to see a final cut of the film. “I think he would have liked it,” she says.

Wilkerson went into the hospital around Christmas and never left. He’d lost most of his eyesight to glaucoma. He was barely conscious during his final days. His wife stayed with him the whole time.

Laura Bush said Friday that while she and others who knew Wilkerson grieve his loss, they also marvel at the arc of his life. Said Bush, “His life story is really a success story.”

There will be a memorial service for Wilkerson tomorrow at 3 p.m. at St. Paul United Methodist Church at 1816 Routh Street.

January 28, 2015

Frederick Deetline

Frederick Deetline
1846 - Offenheim, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany
December 13, 1910 - San Antonio, Texas

Indian War Campaigns Medal of Honor

Citation
Voluntarily brought water to the wounded under fire.

GPS Coordinates
29° 25.281, -098° 28.031

Section F
San Antonio National Cemetery
San Antonio

January 25, 2015

Kenneth Stanley "Bud" Adams

Kenneth Stanley Adams
January 3, 1923 - Bartlesville, Oklahoma
October 21, 2013 - Houston, Texas

Co-founder of the AFL
Founder of the Houston Oilers
Founder of the Tennessee Titans

GPS Coordinates
29° 44.304, -095° 36.517

Section 400
Forest Park Westheimer
Houston

January 21, 2015

John Harrington

John Harrington
1848 - Detroit, Michigan
January 3, 1905 - San Antonio, Texas

Indian War Campaigns Medal of Honor

Citation
While carrying dispatches was attacked by 125 hostile Indians, whom he and his comrades fought throughout the day. He was severely wounded in the hip and unable to move. He continued to fight, defending an exposed dying man.

GPS Coordinates
29° 25.279, -098° 28.038

Section F
San Antonio National Cemetery
San Antonio

January 18, 2015

Frank Mariano Tejeda

Frank Mariano Tejeda
October 2, 1945 - San Antonio, Texas
January 30, 1997 - San Antonio, Texas

United States Congressman (1993-1997)

GPS Coordinates
29° 28.586, -098° 25.976

Section AI
Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery
San Antonio