Who was the person behind the name of the Bill Wilkerson Center? The only son of the Center's founder, Wesley Wilkerson, Bill Wilkerson was a young scholar and soldier who died long before the Center became a reality. Bill Wilkerson was popular, intellectually curious and kind. Although he planned to become a doctor like his father, he was also very interested in history and archeology. Bill knew the location of Civil War trench lines around Nashville as well as where Native American tribes lived and traveled. When he was a teenager, he spent much of his free time on horseback, riding through the hills south of Nashville, collecting minie balls and arrowheads. For Christmas when Bill was 16, his parents gave him a folding shovel to carry on his horse to dig for relics. His father used that shovel when ground was broken on the 19th Avenue building in May 1956. Fifty years later, Bill’s sisters dug that same spade into a pile of sand to commemorate the current facility in Medical Center East.
In 1943, when he was 17, Bill volunteered for the Civil Air Patrol. He graduated from Hillsboro High, then took classes at Vanderbilt. That summer, he enlisted in the Army, returning home for the last time after basic training in North Carolina before being sent to England in the fall of 1944. In January 1945 the dreaded telegram “missing in action, and presumed dead” arrived at the Wilkerson home. The family would later learn that Bill had volunteered to be a forward observer in the largest ground battle of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, in which American and British troops halted Hitler’s last attempt to turn the war in his favor. Bill was one of more than 19,000 young American men to die between Dec. 16, 1944 and Jan. 28, 1945.
When finally the center for hearing and speech sciences that Wesley Wilkerson had worked for since the 1930s became a reality, the board asked Dr. Wilkerson to excuse them on a certain matter of business. With him out of the room, they voted unanimously to name the center after Bill.
The Bill Wilkerson Center has symbolically given this young man who never had a chance to make his mark as an adult the opportunity to help tens of thousands of people over the last 60 years.
From Bill Wilkerson's personal diary, Sunday, March 7, 1943
Today I learned the ABC's of war: Some men don't come back. After thinking it over it doesn't scare you, but it makes you bitter…I'm not afraid of dying, but you don't want to just be one of thousands who die. You want to have honor even in death.
When I was young, I hoped we would have a war so I could watch the men march by, or better still march with them. I would trade all the uniformed men, all the power in the world, for an acre of ground, a house and a wife, and kind neighbors.
Oh! Peace has never been appreciated enough.