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Armbrust nursery owner considered himself caretaker of God's land

Brian Bowling
| Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Jack Wilkinson had three priorities in life: “His family, his farm, his faith,” said his daughter Joyce Rettura.

In his early 20s, he also had a fourth priority: planning how to wrestle an orangutan that was part of a traveling circus. He went to the circus in several towns to feed the orangutan bananas and watch its moves until he thought he was ready.

A barrel-chested man with strong arms, he decided to use a bear hug. In telling the story over the years, he would say, “I forgot he had four arms,” Rettura said.

The orangutan started pummeling him, and Mr. Wilkinson quickly gave up.

“I don't think my dad ever lost a fight — except that one,” Rettura said.

John W. “Jack” Wilkinson Jr., 78, of Armbrust died Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, in his home. He was born July 21, 1939, the son of the late John and Yvonne Wilkinson of Armbrust.

His father ran the family business, J.W. Wilkinson Nurseries in Armbrust, and Mr. Wilkinson began working the fields as a child. After graduating from high school, he joined the business and eventually took it over from his father.

“He would pick up handfuls of dirt, smash them in his hand, let the dirt fall and say, ‘Look at how beautiful that is,' ” said his wife, Connie Wilkinson. “He loved working the land.”

He approached the fields with a reverence, she said: “He always told people he was a caretaker, and it was God's land.”

Mr. Wilkinson was a friendly and generous man who would strike up conversations with complete strangers.

“He never met someone who didn't end up liking him,” she said.

As news of his death has spread, the condolences have included a few surprises — including a longtime friend who thanked them for the time Mr. Wilkinson bought their family a new furnace when they were struggling financially. He never mentioned that act of generosity to his own family.

Mr. Wilkinson was a Mason and a life member of Youngwood Volunteer Hose Company No. 1 and the Youngwood Lions Club. He was a member of the National Rifle Association, the National Trappers Association and the Fur Takers of America.

Her father was a “larger-than-life” character but also a humble one whose only brag was that he was the world champion Barefoot Bear Trap Setter for several years, Rettura said.

“My dad was a unique man,” she said. “We always said that God threw away the mold after him, and we were grateful — the world probably couldn't have handled two of him.”

Mr. Wilkinson is survived by his wife, Connie Simpson Wilkinson; daughters Joyce W. Rettura and her husband, Joe Jr., and Jeanne W. Green and her husband, Michael; sons John W. Wilkinson and his wife, Vicki, and Jason W. Wilkinson and his wife, Melinda, all of Armbrust; and nine grandchildren.

Friends will be received from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at C. Richard McCauley Funeral Home Inc., 101 S. Fourth St., Youngwood. An additional visitation from 10 to 11 a.m. Friday will be followed by funeral services at 11 a.m. in Armbrust Wesleyan Church. Interment will be in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, Tarrs.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Armbrust Wesleyan Church, American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, National Kidney Association, Heartland Hospice or the NRA.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218, bbowling@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TribBrian.

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