Keeping In Step With Virgil Wilmeth (1921-2016)

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It was not the shoes themselves that caught my attention, but the man that filled them and determined their steps. When I first met Virgil he was 90 years young. I don’t remember the exact details of that first introduction, but I can tell you he was not lying in a bed or resting in a rocking chair, or reclining in a lazy boy. He was either on his feet and moving or had just sat down, but only briefly. You might think from this description that he was just nervous energy. But that would not be accurate of the man. I think he was moving because he had a clear view of his destination, his responsibility, and the brevity of time.

I heard from those who knew Virgil long before I did that he was once an avid outdoors man; a man who loved the mountain air and the feel of the trail beneath his feet. For years Virgil lived in the open spaces of Wyoming and in view of the Rocky Mountains.  His feet often took him to these wilder and wider places. But why wouldn’t they?  There was so much ground to be covered and so little time.  By the time I met Virgil all of the ground covered in those 90 years had finally slowed his pace to a shuffle.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”  These words of Lincoln remind me of Virgil.   Like Lincoln, Virgil’s pace eventually slowed, but he was still moving forward and it was where those feet still took him that inspired and humbled me.

Every Wednesday at 1pm, unless weather or sickness prevented it, Virgil’s feet shuffled him into the Washita County Jail.  Moving from the jail parking lot to the entrance was an effort of determination and resolve that would shame young men a fourth his age. I watched with respect and sometimes with concern at the effort it took for him to get in and out of his car and to step onto or down from the curb in front of the jail. He always came with his bible and binder in hand that held World Bible School study booklets and church bulletins.  Virgil was regularly accompanied by his two much younger partners in evangelism, Donnie (at least 20 years his junior) and Chris (a mere child at 60 years his junior!) As often as I could, I too had the privilege of joining these three men in what was often a highlight of my week – sharing the truth and grace of Jesus with our friends behind bars.


Like Superman, heavy steel doors and bolted locks were no obstruction to Virgil.  The guards knew him on a first name basis and not only opened the doors to let him pass, but held them until he did.  For three hours the jailers would bring in groups of men to sit with Virgil and his co-evangelists to hear and discuss the Word of God.  The meeting place was a holding cell.  The walls were cinder block, painted light brown, illuminated in florescent lights.  There were no windows.  There was a heavy chain bolted into the side of the brick and mortar bench on both sides of the wall for seating.  It was the size of a chain you would use to tow a truck.  The acoustics were terrible. Sound echoed off the cold, barren walls.  Just a few words would multiply and morph into a muffled and distorted collision of noise. This complicated things because Virgil was hard of hearing.  But did this deter him?  Not at all.

Every week Virgil would introduce himself to the new guys and greet the regulars. Oft times, because of the acoustics and Virgil’s lack of hearing, the new guys would have to repeat their names two or three times until Virgil got it right.  The guys didn’t mind.  They loved this old man who had a love for their souls that compelled him to shuffle into their lives with the grace of Jesus.  When Virgil was not present, the guys always asked about him.  They showed a special concern for this man who was like a grandfather to them.  He always had a word of encouragement, never condemned, but never hesitated either to tell the men what they needed to hear to be right with their Creator.  They cried when they heard he’d taken his last step in the jail.

Recently a young inmate told me, “There’s no love in prison.” I understood why he could say that, but I also knew it wasn’t the whole truth.  Why?  Because I had the blessing of knowing a man who brought the love of God into that jail nearly every week.  That love was what kept his feet moving.  Though only a shuffle, as Virgil drew near to the end of his earthly journey, he didn’t waste a step.  Other men half his age would not set foot in a jail unless they had to.  Virgil did it voluntarily, determinedly, in step with His Master until just two weeks ago when he took that final step into eternity.

It’s going to be hard to fill Virgil’s shoes.  They kept moving until the very end of their 95 year journey, even if they shuffled. The man that filled them was an inspiration to many, including myself. What do you want to bet he’s already laced up a new pair of shoes? Running shoes most likely!


“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.”   Isaiah 52:7