John G. Wilson, 86; war injury was no match for his resolve

By Laurie D. Willis
Globe Correspondent / February 14, 2011

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John Graham Wilson was a 19-year-old perched in a tree with a fellow US Army soldier during the liberation of Rome campaign of World War II when a German mortar found their hiding place.

The explosion killed the other soldier and cost Mr. Wilson part of his left arm, but he never let it handicap him.

Mr. Wilson, who despite his disability went on to pursue many interests — including trumpet playing — and later served as a mail sorter at the US Postal Service’s General Mail Facility in Boston, died Jan. 27 at the Golden Living Center in Cohasset, following a lengthy illness that was spawned by a fall. He was 86.

“I never thought of him as a handicapped guy,’’ said Robert Wilson of Wollaston, the fifth of Mr. Wilson’s nine children. “He was handy around the house as much as he could be. He’d grab a shovel and be out shoveling with one arm.’’

He said that although his father didn’t complain about the partial loss of his arm, it was not a war wound he was inclined to advertise. “Originally he had a claw,’’ Robert said. “Then over the years, he had a prosthetic limb. It looked like a shoulder strap that went over his right arm. It held the arm on, and it kind of went over the end of his arm. He’d tuck it into his pants pocket. Most people were unsuspecting that he was missing part of his arm. He was self conscious about it. Even if he went outside to throw the trash out back, he’d put on a shirt or jacket.’’

In 1944, after Mr. Wilson lost his lower arm, his older brother, Fred, also in the military, visited him in a hospital in Italy. Fred wrote to the family in Boston about his brother’s loss, and The Globe published part of his letter.

“I have been over to see Johnny and he is in grand spirits. Unfortunately, I must tell you that Johnny has lost his lower left arm; it was amputated about one inch below the elbow,’’ the letter reads. “It is a tough blow for a kid and I was greatly hurt inside when I first saw him, but he soon brightened me up. He is so full of pep and life. He is not dismayed in the least and has extremely high hopes for the future. I was amazed at his very good amount of wit, common sense, and great spirit. He is really a grand boy in every sense.’’

As Mr. Wilson was a southpaw, he had to be sent to an Army hospital in Georgia and retaught to write and drive a car, Robert said.

He also pursued other interests, his disability overshadowed by his drive. Mr. Wilson, a lover of classic movies and big band music, studied trumpet under Harry “Hot Lips’’ Levine after returning home to Boston. He also attended Boston School of Photography and worked as a photographer for many years.

Eventually he landed a job with the General Mail Facility.

“It’s a big, huge place, and he worked on the mail-sorting machine,’’ Robert said. “He retired after 33 years of service at the post office. It was a great job.’’

Seven years after returning to Boston, Mr. Wilson married Vivian Talabach. The couple had five sons and four daughters. (A son, Michael, collapsed at South Station from a heart attack and died on his way to work in 1999.)

“My parents had a nice, long marriage,’’ Robert said. “They looked out for each other. . . . They were together all that time, so obviously they did something right.’’

Mr. Wilson’s children say he wasn’t one for lengthy conversations.

“Except when you got him going on certain subjects,’’ said Judith Wilson-Schaeffer of Somerville, his eldest child. “He had a wide range of knowledge and once he got going on something, it could sometimes be hard to get a word in edgewise; however, he rarely discussed his time in the Army. He was mostly a stay-in-the-background type of guy.’’

Judith and Robert said Mr. Wilson was full of funny sayings, including his most popular: “Be true to your teeth and they’ll never be false to you.’’

Judith said she never heard her dad complain.

“He always made it work for him one way or the other,’’ she said. “I don’t ever remember hearing him say ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I can’t do that.’ ’’

Maureen Concannon, a close family friend who lives in Hanson, knew Mr. Wilson since she was a child.

She fondly recalls eating dinner at the Wilson home and swimming in their pool.

“Each time I walked into the house and Mr. Wilson was in the kitchen, he would say, ‘Hey, old girl,’ ’’ Concannon said. “He would affectionately call his wife Sally, even though that wasn’t her name.’’

“I will remember him as a quiet and humble man whose actions spoke louder than his words,’’ she said.

Besides his daughter Judith, son Robert, and brother Frederick of Arlington, Mr. Wilson leaves his children Pamela Sciarappa of Hull; Janice Wilbur of South Weymouth; James of Stoughton; Kimberly of Hingham; Jeffrey of South Weymouth; and Christopher of Abington; a sister, Lois MacNeil of Haverhill; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Services have been held. In the spring, a 21-gun salute will be held for Mr. Wilson, who received a Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Bronze Star.