Rufus H. Wilson, the deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter who stayed on as acting director during the opening months of the Reagan administration, died of septic shock from a perforated colon Tuesday at Howard County General Hospital. The longtime Columbia resident was 80.
In his 34 years with the agency, he wielded his knowledge and network of legislative contacts to navigate Washington's bureaucracy, while always maintaining a sense of humor, said former Senator Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who headed the Veterans Adminisration under President Carter.
“He had this rock-ribbed integrity,” Senator Cleland said in a telephone interview yesterday. “If a hospital director got out of line, wasn't doing his job, Rufus Wilson was the first to know about it.”
As a Marine Corps Corporal during World War II, Wilson was wounded in action on Saipan in 1944, earning a Purple Heart. Despite sustaining spinal injuries that could have rendered him a quadriplegic, Wilson underwent extensive rehabilitation before being released with partial paralysis in his legs and right arm.
“People told him he would not get out of bed again when he was 18 years old,” said Mr. Wilson's son, Douglas H. Wilson of Ellicott City. “The veterans groups got him back to having a life, so he turned around and actually put his life back into doing service for them.”
After holding high-ranking positions with the VA during the Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford presidencies, Mr. Wilson – a lifelong Republican – submitted his resignation notice soon after President Carter's inauguration in 1977. It wasn't accepted.
Senator Cleland, then a 34-year-old VA administrator, asked Mr. Wilson to serve as his deputy to temper Senator Cleland's “young tiger, militant Vietnam vet” status with pragmatism and institutional memory. “When I made Rufus Wilson the No. 2, the entire agency breathed a collective sigh of relief,” Senator Cleland said. “They didn't know me, but they trusted Rufus.”
Working together, Senator Cleland said, they revamped the vocational rehabilitation program for disabled veterans and launched a counseling program in 1980 to assist veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He was a mentor, a person who you would call just to be cheered up,” said John Fales, president of the Blinded American Veterans Foundation. “He could take the most serious subject, life-and-death situations, and with his wry sense of humor, somehow leave you smiling.”
After President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, Mr. Wilson served as acting administrator of the VA for several months before becoming Republican counsel and staff director for the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Mr. Wilson worked with lawmakers from both parties until he retired in 1989. “He wasn't a neo-con,” Mr. Fales said. “There was no label for Rufus, except veterans advocate, with an unabashed love of veterans and love of country.”
Born in Sweetwater, Tenn., and raised in Detroit, Mr. Wilson joined the Marines shortly after graduating from high school. After completing military service, he attended Wayne State University in Detroit before joining the fledgling American Veterans of World War II (AMVETS) in 1946, becoming national commander of the organization in 1954.
While living at a Washington, D.C., boarding house, he met Florence Mieczkowski of Toledo, Ohio, whom he married in 1949. She died in 1985.
Mr. Wilson joined the VA in 1955, working as field service director and congressional liaison service director. Beginning in 1958, he spent 10 years managing VA regional offices in St. Petersburg, Fla., Lincoln, Neb., and Baltimore. He returned to Washington to serve as the VA's chief benefits director and was promoted to associate deputy administrator in 1970. He became the first director of the VA's National Cemetery Administration in 1974 and later served again as chief benefits director.
He belonged to or held honorary memberships in numerous veterans organizations.
His funeral service will be held at 3 p.m. August 29, 2006, at Arlington National Cemetery.
In addition to his son, survivors include another son, Michael T. Wilson of Crofton; a daughter, Laureen W. Evans of Herndon, Virginia; a sister, Celena W. Clinesmith of Northville, Michigan; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Rufus H. Wilson, 80, a former Deputy Administrator of the Veterans Administration who helped develop programs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related syndromes, died August 1, 2006, of septic shock from a perforated colon at Howard County General Hospital. He was a Columbia, Maryland, resident.
Wilson, who was seriously wounded in battle during World War II, spent his life advocating for veterans as an official with the VA (now called the Department of Veterans Affairs).
Because he was a registered Republican, he tendered his resignation when Democrat Jimmy Carter became president in 1977. His resignation was refused, and Mr. Wilson stayed on throughout Carter's presidency as the No. 2 administrator of the veterans agency under Max Cleland.
“He was the indispensable man,” Cleland said Wednesday. “In a world where everyone and everything seems interchangeable, Rufus was the cog that held it all together.”
During their four years at the helm of the VA, they launched counseling and job-training programs for veterans and increased benefits through the GI Bill. Mr. Wilson provided institutional stability when the agency was caught between the traditional concerns of World War II veterans and a changing set of demands from Vietnam vets.
“When I appointed Rufus,” Cleland said, “the entire VA leadership breathed a collective sigh of relief. He had a reputation among veterans for integrity.”
Mr. Wilson saw a need for new ways to address post-traumatic stress disorder and helped develop programs to treat other psychological effects of battle.
“I don't think that one class of veterans deserves to be treated better than another,” he said in 1981, after leaving the VA. “I don't think a veteran should be singled out because of the war he fought in.”
When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Mr. Wilson stayed on as acting administrator for several months, then resigned to take a position as minority counsel and staff director for Republicans on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. On Capitol Hill, Mr. Wilson was known for working collegially with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to promote the needs of veterans until his retirement in 1989.
Rufus Harold Wilson was born in Sweetwater, Tennessee, and grew up in Detroit. He joined the Marines in World War II and received a paralyzing neck wound during the Battle of Saipan. He was told he would be a quadriplegic; but after long months of rehabilitation at veterans hospitals, he was able to walk with a cane, although he never regained the use of his right arm.
The care he received at veterans hospitals in San Diego and Dearborn, Mich., inspired Mr. Wilson to devote his life to the service of other veterans.
“He thought, ‘These are the people who helped me have a life again,' ” said his son, Douglas H. Wilson.
When he was able to get around, Mr. Wilson joined AMVETS, a veterans organized formed near the end of World War II. In 1954, he was elected the group's national commander, the youngest in its history.
The following year, he came to Washington to join the Veterans Administration. From 1956 to 1958, he directed its congressional liaison service, then spent 10 years managing VA regional offices in Florida, Nebraska and Baltimore. While working full time, Mr. Wilson graduated from American University and, in 1969, received a law degree from the University of Baltimore.
After returning to VA headquarters, he was appointed associate deputy administrator — third in command — in 1970 and supervised the building of hospitals and clinics across the country. In 1974, he became the first director of the National Cemetery Administration, charged with coordinating the operations of hundreds of national cemeteries. He was later named chief benefits director for the VA before assuming his duties as deputy director in 1977.
Mr. Wilson, who was considered a stirring and inspirational speaker, traveled across the United States and its protectorates to visit VA facilities and address veterans.
His wife of 36 years, Florence M. Wilson, died in 1985.
Survivors include three children, Douglas H. Wilson of Columbia, Michael T. Wilson of Crofton and Laureen W. Evans of Herndon; a sister; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard