Getting back to his roots
OXFORD — John Wilson is an expert twice over.
Over a 36-year career, he became a leader in pesticides: how to make them and how to use them.
He has a patent and a plethora of publications to testify to that expertise.
Since he retired in 1996, he has turned his love of learning toward Granville County, and he has six books showing the breadth of his knowledge on that subject.
And this has brought him back to his roots in northern Granville County.
“My father was a sharecropper,” Wilson said.
Growing up on a farm, it was natural for Wilson to take vocational agriculture in high school.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I learned public speaking, parliamentary procedure and cattle judging. Everything in life is judging.”
Although his family had little money, his parents wanted him to go to college. They scraped enough together to pay $100 a semester for him to attend Wake Forest College. He continued to manage his college expenses by raising tobacco and was able to graduate in 1955 with a bachelor of science degree in biology and chemistry.
He began to get experience in his first field of expertise during his service in the chemical corps of the United States Army. He served two years and completed his military service with the rank of first lieutenant. He entered North Carolina State University, where he earned a master’s degree with an emphasis on plant pathology and entomology.
For the next 12 years he worked for a chemical company before beginning a 24-year tenure as a professor at N.C. State.
Wilson said his relationship with chemicals evolved over the course of his life.
“As a farm boy, I was using pesticides,” he said. “In the army, I was working with chemicals to kill people. With the chemical industry, I was inventing pesticides to kill insects. At N.C. State, I was training people about how to use pesticides.”
Environmentalist Rachel Carson helped Wilson get that job at N.C. State. After her book, “Silent Spring,” awoke the nation’s awareness of the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals, the university wanted someone to educate the state’s farmers about the proper use of pesticides
“I held classes all over the state of North Carolina,” Wilson said. “Wrote training manuals and worked with county agents in each county to train farmers.”
When he retired, Wilson decided to write a book that included every hamlet in Granville County.
“Back in the early days, villages were more important than they are now,” he said.
By recounting the history of each community, he thought his book would capture the essence of Granville County.
His strategy was simple.
“My goal was to meet people in their 80s and 90s and get their stories,” he said.
He began in northern Granville County, territory familiar to him since childhood. He went into a country store, notebook in hand, and bought a Pepsi and a Moon Pie. Several locals looked at him suspiciously and asked if there was something they could do for him.
“I said, ‘I want to interview someone 115 years old,’ ” Wilson said. “I was exaggerating just a little bit. They told me that they didn’t know anyone that old, but Lila Harper was 91 and lived on the farm her father and grandfather had owned.”
That was the start of the history of northern Granville County.
“I must have interviewed 500 people while I was writing this book,” Wilson said.
When that was finished, he did one for southern Granville County and another for Oxford.
Tracing his own genealogy, he wrote books on the Wilsons and the Guerrants. His most recent book, “Worth Begging For and Bragging About,” is a collection of writings, his and other authors’, about Granville County and the surrounding area.
Wilson doesn’t seem like a person who would remain inactive after retirement.
“If I hadn’t gotten into the history of Granville County, I don’t know what I would have done,” he said.
He would like to see Vance County have a series of books like the ones he wrote about Granville County, but “I’m too old to begin that now.” He’s 81.
About that patent he holds. Did it make him rich?
“I got $1 for it,” he said.