Local businessman Bob Wilson lifts spirits by helping wildfire victims
Posted on April 23, 2019
High school was everything to me,” says 92-year-old Rancho Santa Fe resident Bob Wilson, chairman of Los Angeles-based Duckett-Wilson Development Company and co-owner of The Fish Market. “So, I’m reading this article in the Los Angeles Times about the fires in Paradise [California] and thinking of how these kids will be deprived and it mentioned the high school. There wouldn’t be a prom. There wouldn’t be sports activities.”
Wilson immediately thought of his own high school years at Escondido High School, where he was a football player, student body president, and social butterfly. To him, those years were not only formative, they were the most carefree times he has ever had. So, when the residents of Paradise lost their homes and community to devastating wildfires last November, Wilson felt he needed to intervene.
“I thought, ‘If I can just lift their spirits a little, put a smile on their faces, then that’s what I’m going to do,” Wilson says. Rather than going the obvious route of donating to an organization like the Red Cross, he wanted to make an immediate, personal impact. Initially, he thought he’d write each high school student a letter.
“Then, I thought I’d put some substance behind it,” Wilson says. “So, I quickly made up my mind and said, ‘I’ll give each of them $1,000.’ There were 980 students. And then I realized all of the teachers, bus drivers, etcetera now weren’t going to have jobs. So I decided to include them, as well.”
Wilson’s incredible, spontaneous act of giving took place just before Thanksgiving. After he contacted Paradise High School’s principal, the giving and receiving was organized in just a week. Wilson traveled up to nearby Chico, where most of the families were following evacuation, and personally distributed each of the 1,085 checks with a letter attached explaining there were no restrictions on how the money should be spent. All he asked was that it not be used for satisfying drug addictions.
Wilson lights up when thinking of some of the responses he received. “One girl held up the check and said, ‘I’m rich!’ Another boy said he’d buy a truck. Something that blew my mind was that one boy took out his phone right then and there and deposited the check on his cell phone!”
He says it’s the most heartening thing he’s ever done, and Wilson is no stranger to philanthropy. His many varied interests include a summer program that sends California educators to Colonial Williamsburg every summer so they can experience America’s birthplace for themselves and transfer that back to their classrooms. But this experience was unique. It was direct, from hand-to-hand, and that made all the difference for Wilson.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the community,” Wilson laments. “I don’t know when they’re going to get it all back together. But I do keep in touch with the principal and he says things are going as well as can be expected.” But, Wilson adds with a smile, there will be a ceremony for Paradise’s graduating class this spring. Will Wilson be there? “They asked me to come and I said, ‘Even if you didn’t invite me, I’d be there anyway.’’’ Jackie Bryant
Photo by Bob Stefanko