On Wednesday, more than two dozen people paid homage to Lula’s oldest living veteran and former City Councilman Mordecai Wilson, who celebrated his 98th birthday March 15.
Throughout the day, folks went in and out of his home as he reclined in his chair, speaking with visitors and reflecting on his life – amounting to nearly a century of service to his country and community.
In the early 1940s, Wilson boarded a Greyhound bus and headed north to Boston – a new world compared to the rural hamlet of Bidwell, Ohio, he grew up in.
In Boston, he’d worked in the hotel industry and then at a defense plant producing bomber jackets for about six months. It was 1943 when he was summoned by the U.S. military. Standing before a draft board, he was told he could wait until he was called to serve, or enlist immediately.
“Take me now,” Wilson said, and by December he was rolling across the Atlantic Ocean on a U.S. Navy vessel, crossing the equator with no real idea where on the planet he was or where he was being taken.
He was taken to what he now describes as a “God-forsaken island" in the Pacific, where he was stationed for two years as a Black serviceman in an era of segregation and racial inequality.
There were air-raids at any given time, with Japanese Zero fighter planes descending on the island. Bullets riddling the land. Bombs wailing down from above and explosions quaking through the earth as balls of fire reached toward the sky.
He and other soldiers would take cover, sometimes returning fire in futility with an M1 Carbine as the planes buzzed overhead.
After nearly three years in the Navy, Wilson returned home to the U.S. and married the woman who’d become his lifelong partner, Mary. He still remembers when he knelt before her in the parking lot of a fine arts museum and proposed. After wiping tears from her face, Mary smiled and said yes.
The two settled in Boston. But by the 1990s, weary of the city, Wilson and his wife went south to Georgia, where Mary was raised. The two moved to Lula, into a quaint home just across the railroad tracks downtown – where Wilson still lives today.
Elected in 2000, Wilson served on Lula’s City Council for 20 years. Despite leaving office in 2020, he remains an active member of local government. Even now, he still attends each work session and council meeting, often reciting a prewritten statement filled with optimism and positive sentiment regarding the future of the city during public comments.
A resident of Lula since the ’90s, Wilson has witnessed the sweeping changes that have taken place across the city and the region as a whole over the last few decades: the heavier traffic, the growing number of businesses, the homes dotting the once-rural landscape and the surge in Hall County’s population.
And as he brooded on this notion at his home last Wednesday, he stressed the need to promote greater opportunity for the youth, to ensure hope for younger generations is sustained and not lost.
“What has been for the older (generation) is not sufficient today, especially for our young,” he said. “I want to see and build a (better) future for our youngsters.”
Among the many accomplishments achieved during his time in office, Wilson noted the often-overlooked progress the city made in further developing its water/sewer infrastructure, which he said has played a major role in accommodating the growth expected to reach Lula in the coming years.
“Thanks to City Manager Dennis Bergin and (council members), now we have an outstanding waste treatment plant and a sufficient amount of water that’s being increased all the time,” Wilson said.
Today, about two years since Wilson left office, an obvious rift has divided two factions of Lula’s residents – with heated exchanges, blunt accusations and personal attacks lobbed back and forth during the public comments segments of each regular meeting since September. Wilson addressed the division, stating, “I think there needs to be changes...everybody is different, and I hate to see what has taken place in many ways. I think changes need to be made.”
Wilson also called for unity within the city, stating that its elected leaders should look to take proactive strides to mend relations between their constituents.
“I think we have some council members, now, that are very bright and intelligent and have a good outlook for the future…we need that,” Wilson said. “The mayor is the head person that’s supposed to be out there leading, but he can’t do it all by himself. He needs council members to help him. We need to get past the bickering with one another and do what is best for everyone. I see signs of that starting to happen.”
Just before 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, as visitors started to leave, Wilson tied his shoes and soon started out the door behind them – on his way to Lula City Hall to attend the work session that evening.
Wilson expressed gratitude for the many years he’s had. He said he’s forever grateful for the people in Lula who support and help him as if he were a member of their own family. And in a way, he said he knows he always will be.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate (the community),” he said. “I would never believe that I would ever see this (day) happen.”