Ron Wilder of Dwight was one of those guys who couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone he knew. But that’s what happens when you spend more than 70 years as an insurance and real estate agent in town.
And that was particularly true on the greens. He closed the office every Thursday at noon to meet friends for lunch at the Dwight Country Club and then tee off, a competitive player who was a self-proclaimed bad putter but got down to a three handicap.
“He was either working or playing golf,” said his daughter Ronda Wilder, of Bloomington. “He loved golf and he loved working.”
Ron celebrated a life of family, faith, hard work, friendship and great golf when he passed away on March 20 at the age of 95. One of Dwight’s local legends, he was surrounded by love and laughter during his March 24 visitation.
“The guy, he had been in [business] for so long. Ron was really a people person. Every morning he’d go to Casey’s and have coffee,” said Philip McArdle, managing broker for McArdle Insurance and Real Estate, who worked under Ron after he bought his building at 106 E. Main St. 10 years ago.
“He was an astute businessman. He was really outgoing. He would talk to anybody. … He wanted things done right. He kept his ducks in a row,” McArdle said.
Ron graduated from Dwight Township High School alongside his identical twin Donald, who lives in Arizona. He served in WWII as a radio operator and gunner. He not only flew more missions than were required — 51 around Romania, Germany, Southern France and the Mediterranean — but he survived a near plane crash and saved his crew from disaster.
He was on a B-17 bomber over an oil refinery in Munich when the bombay doors got stuck. The bomb kept ticking, so the only thing that could be done was harness him and send him out on the catwalk to hand-crank the doors open. He crawled back into the plane while flying 25,000 feet above ground and passed out for lack of oxygen. He was revived and put on a portable oxygen tank for the trip back to base.
He received four Air Medals and a Presidential Citation for his three years in service.
After the war he married his sweetheart, Rosemary, who was from Streator. They met at a dance. She was on another date when he walked up to her and said, “Are you going to keep dancing with him, or marry me?” They married on June 17, 1948. She died July 2, 2017 — 69 years of marriage, a true love story. They raised a family of three — Ronda and her older siblings Pam and Randy.
When Ron first returned from the war he worked at Eymann’s Firestone Store in Dwight as a tire salesman, then was a salesman at Harrie Fairchild’s clothing store after that, which may have sparked his penchant as a sharp dresser. Rarely was he seen without a shirt and tie.
He worked four jobs at the time — he sold clothes, tended bar, delivered the mail and, in his spare time, sold insurance, Ronda said. He started at Banker’s Mutual Life Insurance, based in Freeport, Ill., and led the company in sales for many years. It was then that he decided to branch out, and sold insurance with Columbus Life for the rest of his career along with real estate.
He cheered for the St. Louis Cardinals, had a poker club and enjoyed an occasional Corby’s and water, acheap whiskey he wasn’t ashamed to savor. He was a member of St. Patrick Catholic Church, the Dwight Country Club, the Knights of Columbus, the Dwight American Legion and the Dwight VFW.
He was hard of hearing – his eardrums were blown out in the war – but never misheard a score on the golf course. Joe Bloxam, manager of the country club, said Ron was a member for 60 years, a great sportsman who played tournaments well into his 80s and 90s.
When others complained the weather was too bad, those at the country club would point at Ron out on the course and quip, “That’s Ron Wilder tee-ing off. Now get out there!
He golfed until he was 91, he won his last tournament, a two-man scramble. He worked right up until his passing.
At the visitation, Ronda said they learned many things they had never heard before, like the times Ron had given down payments to families who struggled and allowed them to pay him back slowly. Or the times he would simply give out of the goodness of his heart. One Christmas he met a man who had just lost his job. Ron asked for his children’s Christmas list, and fulfilled every last item.
“Dad led by example,” Ronda said. “He was a man of his word and he taught us family and faith come first.