In act two of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” Malvolio is reading a piece of prose which begins, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great; some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Among the 75,000 people who were working in Oak Ridge when its role in bringing an end to the war was revealed, there was a man who, in that moment, felt the prescient weight of greatness thrust upon him.
Bill Wilcox wrote a letter to his parents in Pennsylvania on the day the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. Excerpts are captured in Denise Kiernan’s “The Girls of Atomic City.” Assessing his life and his place in that moment of history Bill writes, “Never before has the knowledge of so vital a nature been entrusted to so many with so great a success…Never before in the history of the world has so much responsibility been placed on the shoulders of such young people.” The writing of this letter was the beginning of what would become a life vocation of helping us understand more clearly the reality of what happened in Oak Ridge. As a result, his influence will continue to trickle down in a thousand ways.
C.S. Lewis contends that every earthly desire cloaks a powerful wish “to please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied….but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or as a father in a son” (“The Weight of Glory,” p. 39). Bill, like the thousands of others who came to Oak Ridge in its beginning, was, in time, part of a narrative that would extend far beyond his life and the lives of those around him. Indeed, Bill became the driving force in keeping the story from being forgotten in the annals of history. He writes, “Oak Ridge is not a town, city, or name alone, it symbolizes a great and unique philosophy which is felt only by those who have stormed, sweated, and cussed here for two years.”
In yesterday’s Oak Ridger the editor, Darrell Richardson, wrote a tribute to Bill. While extolling Bill’s many accomplishments, there was one sentence near the end that caught my attention. It read, “He was a man of deep faith.” Going to church or being a member of a church is one thing; but being a man of “deep faith” is quite another. Bill’s faith was not just a segment of his life, it was his life. It was his faith that informed his vocation, his Rotary service, and all his civic work locally and nationally that assured Oak Ridge would never be forgotten.
But from the very beginning of Bill’s life, he became a part of another story. In time, Bill would come to understand his life story as part of The Story, thanks, in part, to the faith of his Presbyterian parents. From them, he learned the importance of reading his Bible and the richness of its stories, and how these would lead him to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. Bill would come to believe that whatever else Jesus’ disciples would come to understand about what had happened through his life, death, and resurrection from the dead, they knew from the start that the resurrection is not simply about what happened to Jesus; it is about what happens to all who trust in him, and about what can happen to all who claim this story as their own.
This light of truth became what fed Bill’s soul and planted hope at the foundation of his life. It would carry him through several serious health crisis up to the day he died. Bill was nevertheless never one to lose the consciousness of God’s Spirit at work in his life and in the lives of others. He understood that the resurrection is not simply the reassurance that Jesus was victorious over death; it is also the promise that we can share in that victory with him. The resurrection does not mean only that Jesus was triumphant over evil; it also assures us that evil will not be ultimately triumphant in our own lives. The hope Bill placed his faith in was that even though one’s heart is weakened and the body no longer functions as it’s supposed to, those factors alone can’t cripple love…cannot shatter hope…cannot corrode faith…cannot eat away peace…cannot destroy confidence…cannot invade the soul…cannot reduce eternal life…cannot quench the Spirit…cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.
It is when all the baubles and bangles of life fall away that people like Bill Wilcox begin to teach the really important lessons of life: how to live without living for things; how to love without loving for personal gain; how to last beyond the million little deaths of life. Author Dallas Willard surmises that a person is a series of conscious experiences, and that for the one who trusts and follows Jesus, death itself has no power to interrupt this life. I wonder if anyone has told Bill? Does he even know he has died? It is, as we heard from the Wisdom of Solomon, because “the souls of the just are in God’s hand, and torment shall not touch them” (3:1).
This will not surprise any of us, but today’s worship service was carefully and meticulously planned by Bill several years ago. In a culture consumed with denying mortality, here is a man who plans for it. It had an influence on how he approached each day. Looking back, many early Christian communities encouraged believers to engage in the spiritual discipline of considering their own deaths—not in order to create morbid fear, but to put this life in the proper perspective. Death unaddressed is the bogeyman in the basement; it keeps us looking over our shoulders and holds us back from entering joyously into the days we are given. But death dragged out from the shadows and held up to the light of the gospel not only loses its sting, it becomes an essential reminder to wisely use the life we have.
Early on in Oak Ridge, Bill shared a “D” house with eight men. Next door was a house shared by eight young ladies. One of those was Jeanie Holder, who would become Bill’s wife, and together they would bring three children into the world: Kitty, Martha, and Bill. Bill Wilcox would never return to his home of origin to plant roots with his family. But today we celebrate Bill’s return to his home, to the God who gifted Bill with 90 years of earthly life. “You are dust and to dust you shall return” we say every Ash Wednesday.
The movie “Apollo 13” was one of the most nerve-racking movies I have ever seen. It is about how a mishap in their space capsule forced the three astronauts to abort their mission to the moon and, together with ground control, desperately find a way to get the damaged capsule back to earth.
A friend of mine who saw the movie told me he wished he could have gone on that mission, but then realized how little he would have enjoyed it because of the sheer terror of not knowing whether he’d get back to earth safely. He imagined it—being confined inside a tiny metal box, hundreds of thousands of miles away from his home planet, while any one of a million things could have gone wrong and killed him instantly—and concluded that his fear would have overshadowed any real appreciation of the adventure. In the aftermath, the story of Apollo 13 seems nothing but glorious now, but that’s because we know how it ended. I suspect those three astronauts would have given anything to re-live their mission with the knowledge that they would come home safely.
Likewise, Jesus wants us to know the ending of our story. Otherwise the terror of the unknown would distract us from living life to the fullest. Because we are united to Christ, when we look at him, we see the end of our story. We do get to come home safely. That changes our experience of this mission that is our lives. We can live them joyously, as adventure stories and not tragedies in the making. While Bill scripted the liturgy of his funeral service, in a profound way he also crafted the ending for his life—not on paper—but in how he lived. He finally gets to come home!
There is much about the legacy of Bill Wilcox that will remain embedded in the hearts and minds of a grateful nation, and in the soil of what began as the Clinton Engineer Works. George Washington, laboriously researched and greatly admired by Bill, addressed a new nation with these words, “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly implore His protection and favor.” As a man of deep faith who loved his family, his community, and his country, Bill would want us to remember these words that looked forward to the future in as much as he allowed them to shape his life. Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you did; they will forget what you said. But they will never forget how you made them feel.” Bill Jenkins Wilcox made us feel proud of this wonderful and iconic city of Oak Ridge. While we will miss Bill’s elegant and warm presence, we remain inspired by his beautiful soul. Some people come into our lives and quietly go. Others stay for a while and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never the same. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Craig M. Kallio
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Sept. 7, 2013