Merlene Davis: Man and his new letter jacket are inseparable

J.C. Wilson of  Lexington earned his letter jacket playing basketball in 1951-52 at was then Campbellsville College.
J.C. Wilson of Lexington earned his letter jacket playing basketball in 1951-52 at was then Campbellsville College.

He had dropped hints to his family over the years, hoping one of them would give it to him for Christmas. No one did.

He had written to various people, hoping to find out how he could get it himself. He received no replies.

Still, J.C. Wilson of Lexington could not let go of his dream of replacing the letter jacket he had owned nearly 60 years ago when he helped Campbellsville College, as Campbellsville University was known then, win its basketball conference and compete in the national Junior College Basketball Tournament.

"I always wanted a new jacket," Wilson said. "But I never had the opportunity, the time or the money to get one."

But after recent heart surgery and a knee replacement, Wilson decided it was time. "I said if I'm ever going to do it, I'd better get it done," he said.

The jacket had special meaning for Wilson. In 1951, when he graduated from the now defunct Liberty High School in Liberty, Wilson turned his attention toward the University of Kentucky to further his education. His father gave him enough money for a deposit on his room and tuition, but Wilson wasn't sure he could make a go of it.

"I didn't think I was grounded enough," Wilson said. "I didn't have a very good high school background."

The night before he was to leave for UK, the president of Campbellsville College came to Wilson's church and offered him a basketball scholarship.

"The next day instead of going to UK, I enrolled there," Wilson said.

He credits the nurturing he received at Campbellsville with helping him to become a civil engineer, a degree he later earned at UK after two years in the Army.

"At Campbellsville they take you under their wing and spend more time with you," he said.

Wilson played guard the first year and cherished the time spent on the team. Shortly before practice started in his second year on the team, he broke his ankle. It never healed well enough for him to play again.

He attended UK for a year after graduating from Campbellsville, but he never quite adjusted. His money was running out, so he requested to be drafted into the Army, as his father had suggested.

A couple of days after finals ended, he headed for the Army, making sure to tuck his letter jacket in his father's trunk for safekeeping. When he returned, however, he discovered the jacket had been damaged by water. He was able to salvage only the letter and the patch.

Meanwhile, life went on. Wilson married his wife, Dixie, fathered two sons and managed to buckle down and earn an engineering degree at UK. Still, in the back of his mind was his desire to replace that treasured letter jacket.

Last year, Wilson talked with a former basketball teammate who suggested he contact Chuck Vaughn, director of the Big Maroon Club, a booster club for sports at Campbellsville University.

"He really wanted to find a replacement," Vaughn said. Vaughn connected Wilson with H&W Sports Shop in Campbellsville, where Mitch Overstreet, the manager, took over.

Overstreet said the store deals with DeLong Sportswear in Iowa, where the letter jackets are made in America "from scratch."

Wilson called in the fall. The jacket cost $200, and Wilson estimates it probably would have been $20 or $25 back in the day. It would take three to four weeks for delivery.

Overstreet told Wilson to send him the letter and patch Wilson had saved all these years so they could be sewed on professionally. But there was no way Wilson was going to do that.

Yes, the items could be insured, Wilson said, but if they were lost, they couldn't be replaced.

"I put it on myself," Wilson said of the letter and patch. "I have my own sewing machine, and my mother was a seamstress.

"I had held onto them all these years, why take the chance?"

Wilson said he spoke with Overstreet to learn where the patch and letter should be positioned on the jacket, and applied them.

Since then, Wilson and the jacket have been virtually inseparable.

I have been sworn to secrecy about any size difference there might be between the original and replacement jackets.

"I talk to people who say they can't wear their jackets any more," Wilson said, laughing. "I tell them I can wear mine every day."