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Jim Bob Wilson dies; former mayor, commissioner was advocate for city’s historic

Wilson served Ennis for over 30 years, legacy is great
Ennis has lost another icon.
Jim Bob Wilson, 71, one-time mayor of Ennis and for many years chairman of the Historic Landmark Commission, has died, leaving many to mourn the civic leader credited with galvanizing the local preservation movement that has contributed much to this city’s nostalgic appeal.
“Jim Bob Wilson served the City of Ennis with distinction over a period of 30 years as Mayor, City Commissioner and Chairman of the Ennis Historical Commission,” said City Manager Steve Howerton. “His positive contributions are numerous and will continue to touch the lives of every Ennis citizen on a daily basis. He will be greatly missed as a community leader and friend. Our thoughts, prayers and most sincere condolences go out to his fine family.”
Current Mayor Russell Thomas also said Wilson’s loss is great.
“Jim Bob was an advocate for Ennis and he will be missed,” Thomas said. “We are thankful for the care he had for Ennis and our hearts go out to his family at this time.”
One of the city’s most visionary town fathers, Wilson was the first local public figure to embrace preservation as a municipal asset. He did it in the early 1980s when the importance of a town’s heritage, architecturally and socially, was a new and basically untried concept in Texas.
“There used to be no concern for the history of the buildings and houses of the downtown district,” Wilson told the Ennis Daily News last year, recalling as an example the 1969 destruction of the famous Cerf Mansion that once stood on the site now occupied by the Ennis Public Library.
Wilson helped turn the prevailing attitude of residents and city leaders toward support for revitalization, and the beginning of the modern preservation movement in Ennis can be traced to his influence as mayor and to his later chairmanship of the Landmark Commission.
“Jim Bob Wilson fell in love with Ennis when he came here as a kid,” said Ennis Heritage Society member Peggy Rankin. “And he stayed in love with Ennis. He was so instrumental in making sure some of our old buildings were cared for and recognized. We owe a lot to him.”
Early word is that the former mayor died of a heart attack, although this was unconfirmed at press time. Sources close to the family say Wilson will not have a traditional burial but is to be cremated by the Dallas-based Neptune Society. No information regarding a memorial service for Wilson was available as of 8 a.m. this morning.
Born in July 1936, Jim Bob Wilson’s interest in history wasn’t surprising given his own family’s deep Ellis County roots.
“My family came to Texas in the 1840s from Kentucky and to Ellis County in the 1870s,” Wilson said of his pioneering clan. “So we’ve been here a while.”
His great grandparents, James Oscar Wilson and the former Helen Jackson, founded in Avalon in 1872 what became one of the most prosperous farms in the region. This land remains the second largest cotton producer in Ellis County and one of only a handful of historically recognized North Texas farming properties continuously in operation for over 130 years.
That’s a heritage for which Wilson was grateful, and he pointed to his ancestry as the catalyst for his abiding interest in history, both local and general.
His passion for the past stood Wilson in good stead when he became mayor of Ennis in 1980. Though he held that office for only two terms, the work he accomplished may be the greatest in terms of overall civic vision of any mayor before him. Most importantly perhaps, it was on Wilson’s watch that Ennis became preservation-minded.
“I was the mayor that shouldn’t have been,” Wilson said, referring to old-fashioned local snobbism that Ennis’ eastern half was the “wrong side of the tracks.”
“Anyway, the east side is where I grew up,” Wilson said, clarifying that he wasn’t born in Ennis but in Waxahachie.
“That’s another thing that should have gone against me here,” he laughed.
But it didn’t.
Moving to Ennis with his parents Fred and Madeline Wilson and sister Freda in 1940, Jim Bob roamed the streets of the town he would one day serve. “We lived in an old house on the east side,” Jim Bob remembered. “It had belonged to the grandfather of Troy Dungan, the TV weatherman. We lived there 17 years.”
His father managed the largest cotton business in the county, Planters Cotton Mill, while his mother was a third grade teacher at Ennis’ Alamo Schoolhouse; she retired after 35 years’ service.
The Planters Cotton Mill dated to pre-1900 and was a million dollar company by 1913. As late as 1953 the mill was at full tilt; Jim Bob recalled seeing a check that year for three months’ profits totaling $400,000.
Like his father, Wilson was enterprising from a young age. His first job (at age 10) was as a paperboy for the Ennis Daily News in 1946.
Wilson’s rise from a Waxahachie-born, East side-living, paper-tossing kid to mayor of Ennis was one that surprised him as much as it did others, he said.
But he took his new role seriously, working so many long hours he said he felt he never saw his family, including wife Sue Ann, for many years an EISD counselor and testing coordinator, sons Kirk and Kyle and daughter Keri.
“I just didn’t go home,” he admitted. “When I did, my kids used to say, ‘Daddy, is that you?’”
The new mayor may have had one of the toughest administrations an elected Ennis official has had in recent memory. There was an Ennis Police Department scandal that landed Wilson in the role of Federal court-appointed overseer until Dale Holt was elected City Marshal, and when Judge Adams suffered a heart attack, the mayor was obliged to step in as municipal judge. It also fell to him to direct the city’s transition from a single-member district to an “at large” designation, with voting by wards in compliance with new federal elective rights laws. Finally, during his tenure as mayor he helped orchestrate the construction of the Ennis Public Library on the former Cerf property and the city’s maintenance facility on Hwy 34.
But his lasting legacy is the historical mindset he instilled in city officials and the public by actively seeking to restore and recognize old buildings in downtown Ennis. “I was inspired by the Texas Mainstreet project that was starting up in other towns,” Wilson said, and after hiring City Manager Steve Howerton, who shared his interest in history and preservation, the mayor had an able cohort in his plans to beautify Ennis by shoring up old structures, an effort critical to maintaining the city’s rich architectural heritage.
With Howerton, Wilson sought the first historical designations for city buildings, co-founded the Landmark Commission, endorsed the city’s distinctive turn-of-the-century street lighting, and was a charter member of the Ennis Heritage Society.
His contributions to civic betterment as chairman of the Landmark Commission were crucial throughout the 23 years he served that body.
“I served with Jim Bob Wilson on the Historic Landmark Commission and during that time he worked consistently to forward the pursuit of preservation in the Historic Templeton-McCanless District,” said Michael Wilson, no relation but a like-minded defender of maintaining the integrity of Ennis history and the authenticity of the city’s signature properties.
Before retiring from the commission, Jim Bob Wilson proposed one last initiative –– to form an historic district for the east side of Ennis similar to the west’s Templeton-McCanless area. The project met with a favorable reception but has not yet been put into action.
Privately as well as publicly Wilson sought to save Ennis history. When the Cerf manse was razed, he purchased the old home’s distinctive sliding panel doors and three years later, when the city was selling the last of three original fire trucks, he bought it as a mascot for the Evening Lions Club of which he was then president. In May last year, when the Ennis Firefighters Association expressed interest in restoring the 1927 fire engine, nicknamed “Big Mama,” he offered to sign over the title to the organization. The organization’s negotiations with Wilson for transferal of the title were never completed, and the fate of “Big Mama” now hangs in the balance.
Although the former mayor suffered a heart attack in 2001 and a stroke the following year, he claimed he was fully recovered and seemed as active as ever when he spoke with the Ennis Daily News in September 2007. At that time he was restoring an old house in the Creechville area and had recently celebrated his 40th year as a member of the Lions Club, which he served as district governor in 1999-2000. He said until his heart attack, he had enjoyed perfect attendance for 35 years at Lions.
“I was extremely lucky,” Wilson said of his ill heath seven years ago.
Many feel Ennis was lucky, too, to have had a far-seeing mayor who stepped up to make sure the past was kept as relevant as the present.
Michael Wilson said Jim Bob was integral to the city’s maintaining “the charm of a bygone time,” and that his advice and counsel helped “establish who we are as a city and community today.”

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Posted by on Mar 31 2008. Filed under Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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