A member of a pioneer farming family who chose a different career, Walter Gilma (Gil) Williamson, 94, died peacefully on June 2, 2012 at Southeast Alabama Medical Center.
The Wiregrass native's integrity, faith and respect for others left a wake of admiration through his life, which began in 1917 when the United States entered World War I.
The industrial engineer and textile plant manager was the third of four sons born to Velma Iona Burdeshaw and Marion Walter Williamson, and the only son to embark on a nonagricultural profession.
Born in a farmhouse between Dothan and Rehobeth, Gilma was educated at Piney Grove and Rehobeth Schools and elected president of the senior Class of 1937. After graduation, he worked on his family's farm on the Campbellton Highway for a year before being hired to help assemble knitting machines at the Dothan Hosiery Mill at 12.5 cents an hour.
It was a job that, in a way, he never left. When the machines were assembled, he began to operate them, and then repair them, and soon was a foreman. After the plant was purchased by Burlington Industries, he became quality control supervisor and began a series of industrial engineering training courses offered by the Universities of Alabama, East Tennessee, North Carolina, Michigan and others.
In 1958, after prayer and consultation with his wife, Elizabeth and three sons, he left the farming neighborhood roots of his grandparents, parents, brothers and other relatives and moved his family to Greensboro, N.C. on assignment to Burlington's division headquarters' industrial engineering staff.
The move was the beginning of a 23-year executive journey that saw his career continue to grow until he had managed nine textile plants in seven cities in North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida. New lives were begun in each city and he became an active member of each community. Gilma was a member of Rotary, Civitan, Lions and Ruritan clubs, among other civic and business community organizations.
In every city, Gilma and Elizabeth joined Baptist churches and were leaders in the Christian community, including Gilma's service as a deacon and Sunday School teacher. Their sons were raised in faith, attending church services and activities, always holding hands in prayer before meals, reading scripture together, and singing.
Gilma met his wife, Mary Elizabeth (Bibba) Kelley at a cane-grinding party in 1936 when they were students at Rehobeth and formed an immediate bond. They were married by Dr. Leroy Priest in 1940 at the First Baptist Church parsonage and not long after World War II, joined that church family and maintained an unbroken friendship with it during their many moves. The couple's "high school to heaven" relationship, as they described it, was embedded in profound devotion and has inspired countless others who saw them as symbols of a perfect love.
More than two decades of changing homes ended when Gilma retired in 1982 after working for the same company almost 44 years. With grown children making careers in different places, Gilma and Elizabeth returned to Dothan, the place of their birth, their extended families, and the place they never stopped calling home.
They moved into their 13th home since being married, filled it with love, family mementoes and heirlooms, keeping the welcome mat, and the American flag, always out to greet children, friends and relatives. Church activities blossomed, as did their relationship, and they harvested a bounty of the love they had sown, and continued to sow, during their life. This last home became the best. Gilma and his near life-long sweetheart lived together there longer than any other of their homes, praising God, serving others, cherishing one another and their many family members and friends.
Gilma often said he would rather wear out than rust out, and so he continued driving, shopping, emailing his family, working in the yard and in his workshop until a few days before his death. He read extensively and greatly admired Billy Graham, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Robert E. Lee, among others. He served in the Alabama National Guard for four years.
Elizabeth was at his bedside as he neared the end of his life, as were his two surviving sons, his only living brother and loving relatives.
Gilma is survived by his devoted widow, and by two sons, Ronald Walter of DeLand, Fla. and Paul Kelley of St. Augustine, Fla. A third son, Harry Gilma, died in 2008. Other survivors include Ronald's wife, Anne Travis Sams, their son, Quentin Kelley and his wife, Karen Elizabeth Perez and their two children, Kalie Michelle and Sarah Emily, all of DeLand. A grandchild, Cecilia Sheldon, daughter of Ronald and Travis, died in 2006.
Survivors include Paul's wife, Lauren Whitman Titus, and their two children, Max Whitman and Hannah Jade, all of St. Augustine.
Also surviving is Nancy Myra Hodges, of Asheville, N.C., beloved widow of son Harry and their son, William Hodges of Asheville, and three of Harry's children by a previous marriage, Melody Ruth and her husband, Todd Donald Frankhouser, of Neptune, New Jersey, Meri Christi and her husband, Michael Craft, and their son Raine Michael, all of Mebane, N.C., and Mark Gilma and his wife, Amy Michelle Phillips and their son Renn Gilma, all of Raleigh, N.C., and many nephews, nieces and other relatives.
Gilma is also survived by one of his three brothers, John Ralph, of Dothan. Gilma was predeceased by brothers Virgil Howell and Raymond Preston, both of Dothan.
Flowers are welcome, but memorial contributions would be appreciated for the missions of the First Baptist Church of Dothan, 300 W. Main St., Dothan, Ala., 36303 or to JAARS, a nonprofit providing support services to advance Bible translation and literacy programs worldwide, at PO Box 248, Waxhaw N.C., 28173 or online at www.jarrs.org.
A funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 9, 2012 in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church, Dothan, following visitation at 9 a.m. Dr. Johnny Fain will officiate. Family members will gather for burial at Selma Cemetery.