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95-year-old veteran looks at life, finds fountain of youth

BLACK HAWK (AP) — Wilton Sanders has discovered the fountain of youth.

At 95 years old, he sits draped across a big, stuffed armchair. He’s comfortably dressed in soft, loose-fitting clothes. Next to his chair is another overstuffed recliner holding his newest reading material — Madeleine Albright’s “Fascism: A Warning” and James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty.”

The warm, paneled room at the heart of his house overlooks a big, green lawn, a landing pad for birds.

The comfortable brick house sits off a gravel road in Black Hawk where Sanders’ parents-in-law lived until they died “in the town’s biggest, oldest house.” Black Hawk is also where Sanders’ beloved Virginia, to whom he was married for nearly 70 years, grew up.

Virginia died three years ago, and Wilton stayed in the home they shared. Now he lives alone, keeping himself busy with his reading and frequent outings. He recently met with some people from Delta State University for a catfish lunch at The Crown in Indianola.

On this cloudy April afternoon, Sanders is busy remembering.

“Our house sits on 16 acres acquired in 1841, after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” Sanders said. “There used to be an old parsonage here.”

Kathryn Williams of Cotesworth in North Carrollton wanted to have the parsonage moved across Carroll County to her property, but it was too wide and required cutting in half to be moved, a proposition that turned out to be too expensive. It was torn down in 1982 and the current house was built in 1987.

Sanders and his wife settled here after raising six children all over the world.

He can barely finish a story without referring back, either to Virginia or to the kids. He’s a proud dad. And he was crazy about his wife.

“We met in 1938,” he said. “Virginia attended school over at the old schoolhouse here in Black Hawk, and one night at supper, by the light of the kerosene lamp, she announced to her parents, ‘I’m not going back to that school next year.'”

Virginia’s plan was to move to Greenwood to live with an aunt and attend high school there, but her parents nixed that idea. Instead, they agreed that she could ride the bus to North Carrollton and attend J.Z. George High School, where Wilton went to school.

“This was before they consolidated schools in the 1950s,” Sanders said. In rural Carroll County, he estimated, there were as many as 80 little schools — family schools, church schools, community schools, country schools.

Carrollton, when Sanders was growing up there, was a busy town with “four or five stores, two car dealers, three doctors and a good school with good teachers.”

Virginia, a serious student, wanted serious courses, which she found at J.Z. George.
And she found Wilton.

“Her daddy didn’t want anything to do with me,” Sanders said. “So during our senior year, we co-starred in the school play.”

The play was called “Philippa Gets There,” and Virginia played the lead. Wilton played Philippa — in drag.
“I got to be close to her,” he said.

Their affection stuck after Virginia headed off to Mississippi State College for Women, now Mississippi University for Women, and Wilton attended Sunflower Junior College in Moorhead, now Mississippi Delta Community College.

“I had big ideas,” Sanders said. “The war was on, and in 1942 I said to her, ‘Let’s get married.’ She said she wanted to finish school first.”

Wilton moved on to Mississippi State and then to the U.S. Naval Academy. Virginia moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the government and frequently visited Wilton on weekends at the academy. Finally, in 1946, they were married at the Methodist church in Black Hawk.

Wilton got his wings in 1950 and flew a World War II fighter plane for three years.

Virginia gave birth to their first three children, all boys, and then Wilton got orders to move to Japan, where she had two more babies — twins, a boy and a girl. Their sixth child, a daughter, was born back in the States.

“We had a good life,” Sanders said. “Our kids attended public schools all over the country.”

The children grew up to value education, as their parents did, and went on to top schools — Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Duke, Vanderbilt.

After 26 years in the Navy, Sanders retired, and he and Virginia moved back to Black Hawk to be near her parents, and built the home he lives in now.

“I’ve discovered the fountain of youth,” he said, a wry smile spreading over his softly lined face.

“The fountain of youth is the mind, talent and creativity you bring to your life and to those you love.”