Ken Wilson spent 25 years in the classroom in one school: Battle Creek Academy. That’s quite a record for any one teacher. In his twenty-fifth year, however, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was a devastating blow to a man passionate about God and dedicated to teaching youth.
Known for his love of academics from his earliest years in Akron, Ohio, he was always called “the kid with the smarts.” And he knew, before he ever graduated from Ohio’s Mount Vernon Academy, that he wanted to be a teacher. Though he originally thought about engineering, his heart led him to education. When he graduated from Andrews University in 1970 with two master’s degrees, his professors encouraged him to work toward a doctoral degree in order to teach at the university level. But his love of young people led him on a road to teaching in three Adventist academies for a total of 37 years. Teaching was his true calling.
But Ken Wilson was also known for something else: his smile. How important is a smile? Is it possible to keep up the momentum of a constantly smiling face even through the toughest days?
Ken faced his last year in the classroom with impaired walking and talking—but not without his vibrant smile. His smile prevailed even after his voice failed and muscular weaknesses left him with limited communication abilities. His memorial service in 2009 at the Battle Creek Tabernacle was attended by a multitude of people—including many former students—whose lives were touched by a man whose passion for his Savior coupled with a brilliant smile made a difference. “I never knew Kenny not to have a smile on his face,” wrote his classmate Dolores. “He was the most positive person in the room.” Ingrid, a former student from Ken’s days at Orangewood Academy in California, recalled his “mile-wide smiles.”
“I cherished them,” she said. “He put a song in my heart in my formative years.”
Our faces are often the first thing someone notices about us, and smiles do go the distance. Ken knew this. When my husband and I lived in the Los Angeles area while working at White Memorial Medical Center, there was a grounds-keeper there who did not speak English. He lived close to the hospital, and I admired his beautiful flower garden. For several months all we exchanged were smiles, but they always cheered me.
When I met his young grandson, I mentioned how much we appreciated his grandfather’s hard work and the beautiful flowers he grew. The grandson came to me one day and said, “My grandfather wants you to come to his house. He has flowers he wants to give to the lady with the nice smile.” I’m glad that by my smile he could know I cared. And that is how it was with Ken Wilson.
His smile prevailed when his voice failed and he was limited to communicating by blinking, once for “Yes” and twice for “No.” A true teacher is not just a person who teaches academics well, but also one who molds character, changing lives for the better. Ken Wilson did that in verity. His final days weren’t easy ones, but they revealed his character through his everlasting smile. He shared God every day with that smile—a legacy we can all carry forward.