Thomas Alton Wildman, 1915 – 2005
Born May 6, 1915, Thomas Alton Wildman was number five of 10 children born in a proverbial coal mining "Company" town, Gilmer, West Va., into a stereotypically poor family, led by the quintessential hard-drinking, 40-year miner. After only seven years of schooling and the absence of a harmonious family atmosphere, young Tom followed his relatives and friends into the mines — the only work available. Few places in the country suffered more than the West Virginia coal belt during the Depression, and Tom was far from immune to the diversions of young men in such circumstances. He eventually escaped this underground existence, but took with him lungs forever damaged by breathing 20 years of coal dust.
In 1938, Tom married a girl in the next "holler," Cymantha Sanders. Old man Sanders was not impressed with Tom’s reputation. But they moved to Fairmont, found more mine work, and began raising, eventually, six children born between 1939 and 1948.
Working in a critical wartime industry, Tom could have ignored his draft call, but patriotic fever induced him to enlist in the Navy. He became a qualified machinist-mechanic, but wound up in the hospital for four months toward the end of the war and returned to coal mining.
Having mellowed considerably by both wartime and domestic experiences, Tom helped local congregations take care of their youth and eventually stood in as an evangelical speaker for remote churches in the mountain gullies where no "flatlander" preacher cared to serve. In 1948, Thomas asked the local Methodist district superintendent for certification but was rejected as "insufficiently educated" — zeal and personal reformation notwithstanding.
Continuing to serve without fanfare in the early 1950s, Tom drew the attention of more enlightened clergy. One, Rev. Wicke, became a bishop in Pennsylvania, and encouraged Tom to go to college. By 1962, Tom had obtained an associate degree from Fairmont State College, and a Bachelor of Divinity in social theology from Pittsburgh Presbyterian Seminary. As a "mature" student of the school of hard knocks, Tom had an innate capacity to speak with genuine conviction. He won the homiletics prize every year and became a father figure to many younger seminary students — much cherished memories today.
Bishop Wicke provided supply appointments during Rev. Wildman’s studies and a full appointment to Ulysses, Pa., when his native West Virginia could not offer a suitable charge. Virginia offered future appointments: Winchester, Covington, Martinsville, and Catlett. Never one to be idle, Rev. Wildman pursued his love of the outdoors in every post, and taught Industrial Arts at Fauquier High School to make ends meet. Long since diagnosed with black lung disease, he decided to retire for good in 1980 when regular preaching became possible only with medication.
Thomas’ beloved and very supportive Cymantha died in 1988. But through the miracle of modern medicine and a strong faith, he regained enough strength to continue camping — Canadian and even Alaskan trips whenever the mood struck him. His sage advice for personal relations: never put others down, praise when appropriate, advise when necessary. Youth may not always listen but will respond if shown interest.
— Interviewed 8/19/96, Loaves & Fishes