By Gregg Heid
Special to The PREVIEW
As I read my year-end edition of World Magazine, I was surprised by the obituaries of 100 well-known people who died in 2019. Some of the famous athletes who passed away were Bart Starr, Bill Buckner, John Havlicek and Don Newcombe. Actors and musicians who left us were Diane Carroll, Carol Channing, Ginger Baker, Tim Conway and Doris Day. Fashion designers and billionaires who died were Gloria Vanderbilt, Lee Iacocca, T. Boone Pickens, Ross Perot and David Koch. John Paul Stevens, a Supreme Court justice; Elijah Cummings, a Democratic congressman; and Herman Wouk, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, were also on the list. These deaths are a drop in the bucket compared to the 2,814,013 (USAfacts.org) deaths in 2019 in the United States.
One death stands out for me: Don Wilhelmi. Not many will recognize his name, but those of us who knew him will never forget him.
Before I met Don, he was a hunk of a man, strong and athletic, a skilled craftsman and a savvy businessman. I saw a picture of him when he played football as a 250-pound linebacker. He had paintings and carvings in his room and pictures of furniture and cabinets he made in his earlier years.
I knew him the last five years of his life, when he was 100 pounds lighter, walking with a cane and barely able to talk or eat. He had a tumor removed from his brain in 2010. As the years went by, he lost more weight and was confined to a wheelchair. He had to be careful not to run over the tube that brought him oxygen from a machine in the corner of his room. He ate through a feeding tube inserted in his stomach and spoke in a whisper. He suffered from constant headaches and pain throughout his body. He fought off pneumonia four times; the fifth time ended his life.
Not many people visited Don. He lost contact with friends and acquaintances from when he worked, so he spent long hours playing Scrabble or solitaire on the computer until his hands shook so much he couldn’t control the mouse. His last days were spent watching car shows and home repair programs on TV.
When not in the nursing home or hospital, caregivers came to his house during the day while his wife, Julie, worked. At night, after Julie went to bed, he was alone in his room. Alone in his wheelchair and not able to care for his own basic needs caused anxiety attacks. He hated being a burden to others, especially Julie.
I have never met a man who suffered more and complained less. Life robbed him of his wealth, prestige, power and strength.
But in exchange, God gave him faith, humility, honesty and wisdom. My weekly encounters with Don felt like an encounter with the living Christ. He listened with an open heart, spoke little, but every word he spoke was filled with wisdom.
When I left Don sitting in his wheelchair, I was thankful I wasn’t that bad off. He always said, “God had a purpose for me this way.” Those words gave me a spiritual and emotional uplift. I’m richer for the treasures he shared. His life points to Heaven and eternity with no more suffering, no more tears and no more isolation.
Now Don is more important than any person on earth. Jesus said, “No man born of woman was greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven was greater than him.” His faithfulness through it all makes him a saint in God’s Kingdom.
By Gregg Heid