AFA founder returns to work in a supportive role

By Galen Holley / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A year after he was hospitalized for a mosquito-borne illness, the Rev. Don Wildmon has returned to work and is feeling a lot better.
“I’d say I’m at about 80 percent of where I was before I got sick,” said the 72-year-old founder of the American Family Association, sitting up straight and looking strong in his office last week.
Through a door that separated their offices, Wildmon’s son, Tim, could be heard talking on the telephone, carrying out the day’s business as the head man of the organization that Don Wildmon founded in 1977.
Since returning to work two months ago, Wildmon has become a behind-the-scenes presence at AFA, a venerated elder whose voice still is important but who has passed along the daily operations of the evangelical cultural watchdog to his son and associates.
“I’m pleased with where we are and I know the organization is in capable hands,” said Wildmon. “Tim is a consensus builder. I was more inclined to make individual decisions.”
After Wildmon announced in March that he was stepping aside as chairman of AFA’s 12-member board of directors, the Rev. Bert Harper, a longtime confidant and pastor of West Jackson Street Baptist Church in Tupelo, was elected to replace the Dumas native.
Wildmon’s transition to a supporting role started in August 2009 when his family rushed him to the emergency room after he became lightheaded and nauseated.
It took doctors days to discover that the father of four had contracted St. Louis Encephalitis, a rare affliction that affects the central nervous system.
After spending the better part of a month in serious condition, Wildmon started improving and was moved to Jackson for rehabilitation.
A month later he was back in Tupelo and convalescong when he took a nasty fall in a restaurant and hit his head.
Doctors discovered fluid collecting on Wildmon’s brain and he underwent surgery to remove it.
As if that weren’t enough, doctors soon found cancer in Wildmon’s left eye, and he has since taken radiation treatment to heal it.
Despite substantial suffering over the past year, and his inability to recall long stretches of his time in the hospital, Wildmon remains upbeat and coolly logical about his health.
“This is just part of living,” he said. “God didn’t cause this. You just take it and move on.”
Most weekdays Wildmon works from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., and he moves gingerly around the AFA campus in west Tupelo. His right leg, as he put it, still won’t quite do what he tells it to do, so he has to use a cane.
Wildmon has accepted his cognitive difficulties with the same candor and humor as he has his physical limitations.
“My math is a little off, and I have trouble with my memory sometimes, or when I’m trying to call up the right word or phrase,” he said, laughing. He attributes some of his mental struggles to the medication he’s taking.
The grandfather of six does have a bright spot on the horizon. In September he’ll be honored with a lifetime achievement award at the annual Value Voters Summit in Washington, D.C.
Wildmon occasionally checks in with the other old soldiers of the Christian Right, people like James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, men who, like Wildmon, wear the scars from decades spent in the trenches of the culture wars.
“My friend, Jerry Falwell, died at his desk,” said Wildmon. “I always kind of figured that’s how I’d go, that I’d just fall over around here one day. I didn’t expect God would take me through what I’ve gone through this past year.”
As Wildmon spoke, he was distracted by a knock at the door. He took a moment to shake hands with a well-wisher, a man who stopped to tell him how good he looked and that he praised God to see him back at work.
“I’m so thankful for all the prayers of people who’ve wished me well,” Wildmon said as the man exited. Wildmon laughed at himself when he couldn’t recall the well-wisher’s name.
“I’ve learned a lot about how vulnerable we all are,” said Wildmon. “God said for us to sit at the foot of the table, and maybe, one day, we’d be asked to move up.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.