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A man of quiet strength, he and his family were ostracized as he pushed for school integration.

The Ku Klux Klan filled the room. Garfield Wilson, superintendent of the Walton County, Ga., school district, led the board meeting.

Wilson's wife was steamed.

"I want to tell you one thing," yelled Jane Wilson. "When my husband gets up and looks in the mirror, he sees a man, not a coward under a bed sheet!"

That man - the man she loved passionately for 50 years - died Tuesday of heart failure. He was 76.

Wilson of Plant City was a desegregation pioneer. During the civil rights movement, he championed a plan to gradually integrate Walton schools.

It didn't go over well.

Klansmen would stalk Wilson's three daughters on the playground, and gather on the lawn outside the house. Jane and the girls would hide in the bathroom, the only room without windows, and pretend it was a campout.

But Wilson never changed his tune. He was always soft-spoken and calm, never flashy. He wasn't the type to get up and make a fist-pumping speech or point fingers.

"There were so many nameless, faceless people like my dad who took these quiet stances," said daughter Jill Wilson, who works for the St. Petersburg Times.

When the family was no longer welcome in white circles, they attended black churches. Eventually, the family left town.

They settled in Thomasville, Ga. There, Wilson led a new district. Desegregation challenges were more subtle, but they persisted.

When one of Wilson's black principals was barred from a country club, Wilson played golf with him at a black course, his daughter said. Soon, other white principals followed.

Wilson learned leadership early. As a boy, he suffered rheumatic fever, but he still raised chickens and drove a tractor on his family's farm.

His mother studied to earn a master's degree, a scandal in those days, Jill Wilson said. While Mrs. Wilson took classes, her son cared for four younger brothers.

In college, he met Jane, who was wooed by his country values. His big brown eyes and sculpted build didn't hurt, either.

"He was all muscles. He weighed 185 pounds when we married. He was just out of the Army. I weighed about 104, and he could just pick me up and run upstairs," she said, giggling.

Wilson would cook for the family and patch the girls' pants when they wore thin. She never heard her husband raise his voice or lose his temper.

Still, if he had a point to make, he'd make it. He'd lower his eyebrows and look at you with those big brown eyes. And you knew.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.


Garfield Wilson

Born: March 3, 1931.

Died: July 24, 2007.

Survivors: Wife, Jane Wilson; daughters, Jenny Burke, Jill Wilson and Krista Komosinski; son-in-law, Ron Komosinski; granddaughter, Sara Burke; brothers Ed and Jim Wilson.

Services: 11 a.m. today at Bowdon Baptist Church in Georgia. Memorial donations to Hospice or the Salvation Army.