Paul Luther Wilson
After living with cancer for three years, Paul Luther Wilson passed away under a luminous supermoon early on Friday, March 22, surrounded by his wife, Pat Vauk, daughters Sarah Jane and Caledonia Rose Wilson, grandson Peter Wilson Francisco, and siblings Clark Wilson and Carolyn Vincent. Paul was a brilliant person – generous, thoughtful, extremely bright and talented in a wide range of fields. We miss him terribly.
Paul was born on April 20, 1954, in Tulare, California to Lutheran Pastor Milton Wilson and school teacher and homemaker Myrtle Wilson (nee Hanson). Paul was exposed to a wide range of places, people, and experiences right from the time he was child. Childhood friends remember him as thoughtful, bright, curious, and sensitive. He loved exploring the woods and fields, drawing – horses were a specialty – and baseball. Family vacations usually meant road trips and camping, and Paul was very close to his six siblings as they travelled around the country. They also moved a lot – by the time he was a teenager, dad had lived in several states and two Canadian provinces. The family moved to Canada in 1967 (Paul eventually became a Canadian in 1986).
Following highschool, after spending a number of years traveling around Canada and the US, supporting himself with carpentry and other work, Paul moved to Brandon University to study US history. He graduated with distinction in 1980 and was awarded the Canadian Governor General’s Gold Metal for academic achievement (see photo). He was an outstanding scholar, and close friends with several of his professors. A friend recalls one of them pacing the halls, holding one of Paul’s essays, and muttering “absolutely brilliant… astounding…”. Paul moved to Montreal to pursue a Master’s program on the US Civil war at Concordia University – and start a family with Susan Sawatzky, whom he married in 1980. In 1982 his first daughter, Sarah Jane Wilson, was born, and the family moved to Manitoba. Paul began working in publishing at this time, a profession which he continued to pursue for 30 years. Paul was a gifted salesman whose philosophy “listen first (and more), talk later” proved successful. Paul moved to Minneapolis in 1986 and was re-married to Pat Vauk in 1993, and their daughter Caledonia Rose Wilson was born in 1996. Paul eventually went on to work for the New York Times education department, spreading readership among college students around the country. Later, upon his termination he sued the New York Times for age discrimination – and won. Paul spent the next several years writing freelance pieces, novels, and poetry; painting; singing with the Sacred Harp singers; learning banjo; fly fishing and spending time in nature and with his family.
Paul was a true Renaissance man, with as much passion for trees and insects as art and writing. Despite being in a lot of pain, Paul wrote poetry and novels, cooked, traveled, sang and played banjo, painted and sketched, and played with his grandson Peter right until a week before he died. He was well-read, knowledgeable, interested in and just good at a wide range of things, and took the initiative to build and develop his skills and expertise just for the sake of it. He was a trained carpenter – and mathematician. Although not religious, he had an in-depth knowledge of theology. His spiritual side was an enigma even to his family, but shines through in his art and writing, particularly in later years. Paul also loved nature, and traveling (especially on the backroads). He took a horticultural program and became a proficient arborist, able to rattle off the Latin name of any tree in the state and curating a beautiful arboretum in his modest backyard. A fly fisherman, he took courses in aquatic entomology and tied his own flies, an interest that he shared with his older daughter, Sarah, that eventually led her to complete a Masters in aquatic ecology. He kept up his love of history and philosophy, reading voraciously and spending many of his vacations rambling around the old civil war monuments and battlegrounds. He also diligently researched his own family’s history in the Wild West of South Dakota (and Iowa), and making the pilgrimage to many of the sites with his family. He has requested that his ashes be spread alongside his ancestors at the Hill of Zion cemetery in Iowa.
Paul was incredibly artistic and creative. Although he described himself as “just a guy who likes to draw”, he always had a natural talent for drawing, and in 1998 built on this by taking classes to study pen and ink, watercolour, oil painting and figure drawing at The Art Academy in Saint Paul. He kept this up for 20 years, attending his last class the week before he died. In his final years, he found that watercolour and oil painting helped him to focus and ease pain. He produced many beautiful works during this time, sharing them through Facebook and Instagram. He taught himself to play the banjo “while the computer was booting up”, and then built on this with dedicated lessons. He wrote four novels, waking up before the rest of the house every morning to write 500 words (the rest of the house woke to the smell of dad’s espresso – and sometimes pancakes). He also a series of short stories, and blogs about life, history and culture, and poems. His poetry can be found on his blog The Evening Light.
Not surprisingly, Paul had an enormous influence on many people in his life. His daughters remember camping, canoeing and fishing trips, drawing, stories, humor, music, travels, tree-identification and sage advice. He had a knack for comforting them through life’s rough spots with just the right mix of empathy and humour. He also had a special gift for identifying talent in his family members and friends, and encouraging and nurturing it in the most natural and subtle ways. Younger brother Clark recalls Paul giving him a sketchbook after pointing out how remarkable it was that, never having had lessons, he could draw in 3-D (this brother went on to study architecture and design). He worked calculus problems with his younger daughter Callie on paper napkins in restaurants – Callie is graduating this spring with an honour’s degree in Math from Mount Holyoke College. He also bought her a guitar and encouraged her to take lessons, and she’s also a talented singer songwriter. His older daughter Sarah, now a PhD in Forest Ecology and Geography, was always rich with field guides, books, and gear to go exploring. Countless friends and acquaintances have recalled the gifts and encouragement that Paul had given them over the years, from teaching them how to fish to buying them a new set of tires when they were strapped for cash; recommending just the right book or teacher; and giving words of encouragement and wisdom at just the right time. Both of his daughters sang at his service, a true testament to the love of music he’d instilled in both of them.
Paul also cared deeply about the communities he was active in. He’s well remembered for keeping folks in line: he could not stand inconsiderate, belligerent, or otherwise rude behaviour, and was not afraid to call people out on it – loudly, and in public – much to his family’s chagrin (and sometimes secrete admiration). As his mother put it, “that’s just Paul being Paul”. He also shared his knowledge and interests with friends and many others as a volunteer, writing for and serving on the board of Trout Unlimited, teaching disabled veterans – many who were more able than himself at the time – how to fly fish through the program Healing Waters, teaching English to recent immigrants in Minneapolis, and in Vietnam, and feeding injured birds of prey at the Minnesota raptor center. He also shared his love of nature through art and poetry, such as in the poem "Big River":
Its waters are music—moving, but still.
Ripple by ripple, note by note flowing,
But only present, each note at a time.
Its waters are film—emulsifying
The surface mood of each season: red ochre
in autumn. In winter white, like bolt steel.
It sponges the marshland, sending it south
In a serpentine ribbon that never
Spools out—a sentence unfinished until
it finds its mouth. It has only one mind,
To move and keep moving; relentlessly
Stirring everything in its path. Its banks
Are a border It disdains to obey;
Levees collapse at its watery will.
It haunts my sleeping, the ghost of a thought—
Almost eternal, like a god, or rock.
Paul was preceded in death by his father Milton Wilson, brother Earl Wilson, and sister Holly Wilson. He is survived by his mother Myrtle Wilson, wife Pat Vauk; daughters Caledonia and Sarah Francisco (Scott) and grandson Peter; sisters Carolyn Vincent (David) and Christine Wilson; and brothers Lewis and Clark Wilson. His other extended family includes nephews Geoffrey and Colin Vincent, and Laura and Eric Wilson. His family would like to extend a special thank you to the University of Minnesota nurses, wing 5C, for their exceptional kindness and empathy. Services were held at the on March 24, 2019, at University Baptist Church, Minneapolis.
Published on March 31, 2019
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