Charlie Wilson, the former Lufkin Congressman whose behind-the-scenes work in Afghanistan became the subject of a major motion picture, died Wednesday in a Lufkin hospital. He was 76.
Wilson died at 12:16 p.m. Wednesday after suffering cardiopulmonary arrest, according to Bryant Krenek, president and CEO of Memorial Health System of East Texas. Wilson had attended a T.L.L. Temple Foundation meeting earlier in the day. Wilson is survived by his of 11 years wife, Barbara, a sister and brother-in-law in Waco, and a niece and nephew.
“Charlie was a giant,” said longtime friend Buddy Temple. “We have lost a giant. There won’t be another like him.”
Temple said that after Wilson suffered some obvious distress, he began to transport him to the hospital. They happened upon an EMT vehicle along the way, and the medical staff took Wilson the rest of the way to the hospital.
Dr. Kerry Evans, system medical director, described cardiopulmonary arrest as the heart functions suddenly stopping.
Wilson served on the hospital’s foundation board, and was closely connected to the extensive additions to the medical complex through the Temple Foundation.
“We consider him one of our own,” Krenek said.
Wilson received a heart transplant Sept. 24, 2007, at Methodist Hospital in Houston. In the years since, he had slowed his travels and interviews, although he continued to do work for the people of East Texas, making appearances at various events and openings.
Wilson was born June 1, 1933, in Trinity, the small East Texas town where he entered politics in his teenage years by running against a city council incumbent who Wilson said had poisoned his dog. He became known as a rowdy Congressman — one who, behind the scenes in the 1980s, helped fund the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. That story was chronicled in both a book and a movie titled “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
Wilson became known as “Good-Time Charlie” but apologized for his past behavior during a retirement ceremony in Lufkin in 1996.
Temple said Wednesday the book and movie did a disservice to Wilson, unfairly characterizing him as a playboy. Wilson dedicated his life to making things better for the people he served, said Temple, naming such accomplishments as establishing the Big Thicket Preserve and, as a freshman legislator in Texas, introducing the sales tax bill and creating the Public Utilities Commission.
Temple, who’d been friends with Wilson since the two met through politics in 1964, said they used to laugh at high-spending politicians speaking up against earmarks.
As a 12-term U.S. House of Representatives member Wilson was credited with securing millions of dollars for facilities and services in the 2nd Congressional District of Texas.
It was Wilson’s earmarks that created the very airport those same politicians were landing at, and it was Wilson who made sure the VA clinic ended up in Lufkin, changing the name on the bill from Tyler, Temple said.
The slogan on his political campaign signs was always, “Wilson gets it done,” Temple said.
Wilson is also the only civilian to receive the award of “Honored Colleague” by the CIA for his help in defeating the Soviet Union’s Red Army in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan medal of honor.
Former Lufkin Daily News reporter and 1977 Pulitzer prize winner Ken Herman, now a columnist with the Austin-American Statesman, sat down with Wilson in December to get his opinion on the current conditions in Afghanistan.
“Generally, I’m a pretty optimistic person, and I’m not very optimistic about this,” Wilson told Herman. “I feel like I would not be surprised if in two years we’ve taken a lot of casualties and spent a lot of money and don’t have much to show for it.”
On a personal note, Temple, who together with his wife Ellen have been close friends of the Wilsons, said Charlie Wilson was the best person he’d ever known in showing an unconditional love for his friends. That generosity of spirit came through in his great attachment to the people of East Texas, he said. That was a big part of why Wilson retired to Lufkin nearly five years ago, he said.
Honored with the Silver Bucket Award last March at the Pitser Garrison Civic Center, Wilson revealed another reason he chose to call Lufkin his retirement home during his acceptance speech.
“When I told people I’d retire in East Texas, they asked, 'Why?’ and I said because in East Texas people know if you’re sick, and they care if you die,” Wilson said.
Jim Turner, former Congressman who took the district office after Wilson, described him as a dedicated public servant who fought hard for the people of his district.
“Many of the things he did will outlast him, Turner said. “When he knew he was stepping down, he encouraged me to run. I’ll always be grateful to him for his support and friendship. One of the last pieces of legislation I passed was a bill to name the new VA Clinic in his honor. He was bigger than life. He was very fortunate to have Barbara. She was the love of his life even when he was single. They had known each other a long time. It will be really hard for her. Our hearts and prayers go out to her.”
Lt. Gen. Orren “Cotton” Whiddon (Ret.) of Lufkin and his wife Harriet have been friends of the Wilsons for years. Whiddon said Wilson represented the “very best of leadership” in East Texas. Wilson was selected for the U.S. Naval Academy, where he had an outstanding performance, and then served in the Navy for about six years, when he was an outstanding officer aboard a destroyer, Whiddon said.
It was Wilson’s vision that helped provide for Afghan freedom from Russia, and he returned from many trips to that country back to East Texas to serve the people, Whiddon said. East Texas is also what brought him back home when he retired, according to Whiddon.
“He returned here, as most of us with pine rosin in our veins do,” Whiddon said.
Whiddon added that Wilson’s heart transplant and his openness about the experience was something that provided hope for the many, like Wilson, who need donorship.
Keith Johnson, site director for Lufkin Operations at Lockheed Martin, said Wilson would be missed from both a personal and professional standpoint. Wilson was instrumental in bringing the PAC-3 missile program to Lufkin in the mid-’90s.
“He has been a strong supporter of Lockheed Martin and the defense industry in Lufkin and Angelina County. All of our employees are aware of what happened, and there was a lot of silence and sadness when we told them. When he was here in April for the groundbreaking, he spent a lot of time taking photographs and with the employees. It was enjoyable for him and the employees,” Johnson said. “We took him on a personal tour of the factory, both him and Barbara, when we started construction. He was looking forward to seeing it completed.”
Wilson began his political career in 1960 when he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, according to Stephen F. Austin State University Library, where his congressional papers are stored. He served in the Texas House of Representatives for six years and was then elected to the Texas Senate in 1966. On Nov. 7, 1972, the second district of Texas elected Charles Wilson to the U.S. House of Representatives. He retired from the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996.
“The first time I met him, he had just gotten out of the Navy and came to Diboll,” said Joe Denman of Lufkin, who last month received the Angelina Award for a lifetime of community service. “He was walking the streets and knocked on my door and asked me to vote for him. We’ve been friends ever since.
“I sure hate to hear it, but I know he’s in a better place. He was a friend to many people in East Texas.”
Funeral arrangements for Wilson are pending.