‘An icon of China Grove:’ Former China Grove Elementary students remember custodian Carl Wilkerson
By Susan Shinn Turner
For the Salisbury Post
Thinking back on your school days, you may recall a favorite teacher or two. But for students at China Grove Elementary School, no one was as universally beloved as our custodian, Carl Wilkerson.
Wilkerson, 85, died Sunday after many years of declining health.
Wilkerson worked at the school from the 1960s to the 1990s, retiring after 32 years of service with the school system. After working at school all day, he cleaned at night at businesses around town, including First Union National Bank and China Grove Drug Co. He also worked at Cress Laundromat for 20 years. He rented an apartment in a house across from the business. He never drove a car, but folks around town were happy to give him rides.
Wilkerson worked for three principals: the late John Rudisell, Dr. Alan King, and Dr. Bob Bloodworth.
“I loved Carl to death,” King said Monday. “I was at China Grove Elementary for 11 years. He was there when I got there, and he was there when I left. He always made my day. He was positive and upbeat, and he always had a smile on his face. He loved the children. He treated me with so much more respect than I needed or deserved.”
King remembered the April Fool’s Day when he and Wilkerson switched roles. Wilkerson delivered the morning announcements, while King took up a broom and started sweeping. Even though it was just pretend, Wilkerson took his temporary role seriously, and he was nervous. King told him afterward he did just fine.
Early in her career, teacher Sandra Rogers thought she may be moving to Charlotte when her husband got a transfer. They later changed plans, but not before Wilkerson left a bean pot with an arrangement of artificial fruit in her car.
“I still have that bean pot,” Rogers said Monday. “Every time I look at it, I think of Carl. There is no way to express what a kind, gentle, and loving person he was. He was a true gentleman.”
For whatever reason, a child throwing up at school was often commonplace.
“I’d call him on the radio and I’d say, ‘Carl, we’ve got an accident,’ and he’d say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” King said. “One day I asked him why he thanked me, and he said, ‘I’m just happy to have a job and happy to help out.’ I never heard him complain about his job.”
Carole Yost Parrott was one of those students who threw up once at school.
“He never made you feel bad about it,” Parrott said Monday. “He said, ‘It’s OK, honey. It’s OK.’ He was just happiness. Here I am 52 years old, and he is one of the people who stands out to me in elementary school. He was just as important as any teacher or principal who was there.”
Michael Brotherton agrees.
“Everybody knew Carl,” he said Monday. “He was an icon of China Grove.”
He added, “He was one great guy. He was a humble and loving person. He’d ask for volunteers to run the ice cream store and we’d all get excited about that. Everybody just loved him.”
Wilkerson was known for sometimes buying ice cream for students who didn’t have any money, and being a listening ear when they needed him.
“I was just a skinny little black man,” he said once. “They just wanted to talk to me about things, everyday problems. I told them to pray over it and take it to the good Lord.”
A Facebook page called The Grove is filled with hundreds of tributes to Wilkerson. Many former students visited him when he was in local nursing homes.
John Freeze knew Wilkerson’s faith ran deep. “You better be ready to hear about Jesus!” he wrote.
Others wrote of Wilkerson’s sweetness and kind and caring nature.
“Everybody needs a Carl,” Su Krotchko wrote.
“He is the perfect example of how a life quietly lived for good can affect the world,” Becky Morris wrote. “He worked hard but always had a kind word and a smile for everyone. We all remember him with affection. Ripple or butterfly effect — whatever. Carl made this world a better place.”
Caroline Marshall found out Wilkerson was at Liberty Commons because her beautician’s mother was there, too. She remembered Wilkerson, and began to visit him, taking him treats such as pudding and Vienna sausages.
“I know I was not the only person going to see him,” she said Monday.
Wilkerson loved getting cards and visits. At one point several years ago, his doctor had to limit the amount of visitors.
Marshall, who is an artist, would like to make a tribute to Wilkerson in calligraphy and give to the school.
“I’m going to pursue it,” she said.
As of Monday, others were discussing additional ideas about how to best memorialize Wilkerson.
Wilkerson was one of three brothers born to the late Willie and Irene Wilkerson.
In his own way, Wilkerson, too, was a teacher.
“He may have been a custodian,” Gene Doby wrote, “but he taught his kids at China Grove Elementary School a lot. He was a true educator.”