NILES — Wayne Wilson would have been overwhelmed to see the outpouring of love and support from hundreds of people he never met, Wilson’s friend Charlotte Andrews said Wednesday after a funeral service at Silverbrook Cemetery.
Hundreds of people drove, walked and rode to the cemetery to pay tribute to the Niles Vietnam veteran who died in late May without any close family. A steady line of cars and people on foot streamed into the cemetery before the early afternoon service and stood in the 90-degree heat for the nearly hourlong service.
“This is so overwhelming, he only planned a very simple service with a few friends and military honors,” Andrews said. “If he could look down and see this, he’d be in tears. He’d say ‘Oh no, baby girl, what did you do?’ He was a good friend to those who lived in our apartment complex. He loved everyone there; it is a true family.”
She said she and other friends planned to have a luncheon and cookout later Wednesday to share memories. Andrews described Wilson as a “jokester” who loved to have a good time. “He loved to hear and tell a good joke,” she said. “He’d be overwhelmed like we are to see everyone come out to honor him and all veterans.”
Brown Funeral Home had put out a call for the public to attend the burial since Wilson didn’t have family. Word spread throught the media and social media.
The first tribute of the afternoon came from more than a hundred motorcyclists who came from across the Midwest to escort the hearse into the cemetery. Among the motorcyclists coming a distance were Bob Davis of Delton, Dave Waters of Plainwell and Keith Diller of Galesburg.
The three are Vietnam veterans themselves and said they decided to come after hearing about the call for people to come to Wilson’s service on Facebook. “This is beautiful, no veteran should be buried alone, this is really, really touching,” Davis said.
Ed Selent and his wife, Leslie, stood along the major road inside the cemetery waving an American flag. They belong to the “Our Vets” group in Niles and often attend veterans’ funerals throughout the area and also take Christmas dinners every year to the veterans at Fort Custer near Battle Creek.
Wilson was born Dec. 11, 1951, in Michigan City but lived most of his life in the Niles area. He served in the U.S. Army from 1971 to 1977, including time spent in Vietnam where he was wounded. He was a truck driver for many years before becoming confined to a wheelchair. He died May 28 at the age of 67 after surgery at an Ann Arbor hospital.
Several area dignitaries including Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey and State Rep. Brad Paquette were among those attending the service. Speakers included Niles Mayor Nick Shelton, Annie Brown of Sen. Gary Peter’s office and the Rev. Mike Smith of Hope Community Church.
“Like many of us here, I didn’t know him ,but here we are today to celebrate the life of someone we didn’t know,” Shelton said. “Everyone’s presence here today is a testament to our community, to our country, to Mr. Wilson and to all those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
“His story has moved us all, but his story doesn’t end today. His story is a legacy to all those who have served, especially to those who feel alone. You are not alone. The lesson for all of us to appreciate veterans and most importantly to thank them.”
Brown said the turnout speaks well of the community.
“I want to thank each and everyone of you who stopped what you were doing to come today,” Brown said. “This is what community is all about. He was a courageous vet with few family members but thousands of friends. This what a hero’s farewell should look like.”
Smith spoke of the memories Wilson’s friends shared with him. “He was better known as ‘Sarge’ and he was first and foremost a patriot who loved to tell jokes,” he said. “He had the heart of a warrior. He made sure that the graves of veterans had flags flying on them on Memorial Day and he urged people to donate to the Disabled American Veterans.
“He would check on neighbors and ask if they needed groceries even though he was in a wheelchair himself. He is one of the thousands of reasons why I love this country and this community. When people heard about this warrior, they refused to let this warrior be buried alone. ... If he is looking down, he probably feels like we’ve gone overboard, but we refuse to let him be forgotten.”