When the subject of death came up, Lillian Karr Wilson would say, "I'm not going till Bill goes."
Her words came true Tuesday, when she died at a Lexington nursing home minutes after her husband of 73 years, William "Wild Bill" Wilson, died at Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore.
He was 93 and had lived at the veterans nursing home for five years. She was 89 and had been at Richmond Place for more than two years. Both were Alzheimer's patients, said son Doug Wilson of Lexington.
"We all look at it as a blessing because we're having one funeral for both of them," he said.
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He would drive his mother to see his father in Wilmore regularly.
"It was difficult to moderate their conversations," he said. "The last time I had them there was Christmas Day."
Theirs was a story not only of ups and downs and many relocations, but of reinvention.
The couple, both born in Cor bin, were high school sweethearts there. She played basketball. He was quarterback of the Cor bin Redhounds football team that had an undefeated season in 1939.
They married in 1941. "They ran off, decided to get married, and I don't think either one of them had the blessings of their parents," Doug Wilson said.
Bill Wilson had a scholarship to attend Western Kentucky University, but when World War II began he enlisted in the Army and went to Germany.
When he returned to Corbin in 1945, Bill took a job with Burr's department store. He later managed a Burr's store in East Moline, Ill., but the family moved back to Kentucky when Bill Wilson got a job managing the Belk store in Harlan.
There he had a morning radio show in which he introduced himself as "Wild Bill" Wilson. He came up with all sorts of contests and promotions to get people to come downtown and into his store. One contest was to see who could ride a stationary bicycle the longest. In another, he put a dairy cow in the store window and had a milking contest that people could watch from the street.
The family — Doug has two brothers, Mike and Terry — moved to Atlanta, where the Wilsons sank their life savings into a shopping center. They lost their investment when a bypass came through "and left them out in the middle of nowhere," Doug Wilson said.
So the family returned to Harlan, where his dad took over management of Bower's Department Store and resurrected his radio show.
"He would say, 'Hello, this is Wild Bill Wilson, your old red-headed, freckle-faced, snaggle-toothed, snuff-dipping buddy coming to you from Bower's Department Store...,'" his son recalled.
Another of his promotions, a twist dance contest, drew so many participants downtown that police had to disperse the crowd so traffic wouldn't be blocked.
After the Bower's store burned in 1964 and didn't reopen, the family moved to Lexington, where Bill Wilson managed Welgo, a discount department store. He later got a job as a buyer of merchandise for Top Value Stamps, a company whose customers redeemed trading stamps for catalog items.
There were more moves, but the Wilsons returned to Lexington. Bill Wilson, intent on running his own business, opened Landmark Realty in Lansdowne center with $800. The business grew into a million-dollar firm.
As if he didn't have enough to do, Bill Wilson would buy houses at foreclosure sales, then rehab them for resale. Lillian Wilson, who was a head teller at Central Bank, a position from which she would retire, would do the trim work, painting and wallpapering.
"She could do some of the rough carpentry work, but she would usually leave that to me," Doug Wilson said. "We had great times rehabbing houses together."
In his later years, Bill Wilson was called "Wild Bill" at Thomson-Hood, where he would sometimes re-enact his radio show in the cafeteria.
On Sunday, when Doug Wilson, 66, visited his father at Thomson-Hood. Bill Wilson was wearing oxygen mask and "barely hanging on," his son said.
"I wanted to talk to him, and I got down there in his face and held his arm, and he squeezed my hand a little bit," Doug Wilson said. "I just told him, 'This is Wild Bill Wilson, your red-headed, freckle-faced, snaggle-toothed, snuff-dipping buddy.' And underneath the mask there, he grinned real big. He heard it. I was glad of that."
The end came at 3:52 a.m. Tuesday, when the phone rang and Thomson-Hood informed Doug Wilson that his father had died.
"Five minutes later, at 3:57 a.m., I got a call from Richmond Place: 'Doug, I'm sorry to tell you, your mother has passed.'"
When Doug called Thomson-Hood to tell them that his mother had died, "the nurse said, 'Oh, my God, that's like The Notebook,'" referring to the popular novel and movie about a couple dealing with Alzheimer's who die together in their sleep.
So from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, family and friends will gather at Clark Legacy Center in Brannon Crossing in Jessamine County; that will be followed by a joint "celebration of life" service. Doug has asked a friend to read a story that recounts the family's saga. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Alzheimer's Association.
Among the possessions Bill Wilson had at Thomson-Hood was a photo collage of him and his wife.
"It says on it, 'Lill & Bill together forever,'" Doug Wilson said. "It came true."