By Mike Nemeth | Sanger Herald
George Willhoite can bust up a group of guys better than most.
And he’s got a unique outlook on life that has earned him a reputation beyond the American Veterans organization Post 98 where he serves as commander. Willhoite won the Team AMVETS Department of California AMVET of the Year Award for 2016. He received a plaque that says, “In recognition and appreciation for your impressive accomplishments and contributions towards service to veterans, posts, your community and the department.”
“Good guy, George,” said Mike Viar, a post member who’s known Willhoite since their kids were little. “He’s funny. He puts a lot of time into AMVETS. He’s dedicated.”
Dewayne Bolin agreed. Everybody, it appears, had a story about Willhoite.
“Good man,” Melvin Campbell said. “He’s for the people. He bends over backward to help people.”
Willhoite said he and Campbell are “brothers from different mothers” so brother Melvin may be a little biased. A number of stories were mentioned involving Willhoite, often humorous. There was one about something called apple pie and the case of the missing four hours.
But that’s only part of who he is.
Willhoite, 64, a former Marine who promotes, assists and champions the issues and lives of those who have served in the armed forces, earned his stripes in life. He didn’t come by anything easy, and like most he experienced his share of challenges. He grew up with six brothers and sisters and a mom who raised them on her own.
He met the woman of his dreams early.
Sandra was a bit younger. But when he noticed her, he paid attention. Willhoite said they started talking at a party. “After that,” he said, inhaling and then exhaling for an extended emphatic pause. “Nobody else.”
The two have been together “going on 43 years.” And Willhoite said, “My wife’s my best friend.”
He worked for Detroit-based Fruehauf Trailer Corp. in Fresno, which manufactured and sold truck trailers, for years. “We built everything,” he said. “Tanks, beds. I became foreman in the van line.”
Then Willhoite got sick. At first, he didn’t know what was wrong. He was hospitalized twice, for 11 days. “They kept me pretty drugged up,” he said. “I was in a wheelchair for awhile.”
The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis, which the National Multiple Sclerosis Society defines as an unpredictable often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body. “The cause of MS is still unknown,” the society said on its website. “Scientists believe the disease is triggered by as-yet-unidentified environmental factor in a person who is genetically predisposed to respond.”
Most are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50.
“I was sitting in the hospital when they told me,” Willhoite said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
Then still while in the hospital room, a public service announcement aired on the TV. It was Paul Newman at the behest of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society extolling viewers to give money to try and halt the disease. Alongside Newman, who may have been the nation’s most famous actor at the time, was a guy in a wheelchair.
Willhoite said it affected him. “I didn’t want to be that way,” he said, referring to the guy in the wheelchair. “I was scared. But my wife came in and stayed with me.”
He got angry, too, taking out some frustrations on the hospital room.
The Newman spot, which is identified as coming out in 1982, can be found on YouTube. It shows Newman, an avid race car enthusiast, roaring around the track. About midway through the 20-second spot, he gets out of his car and says, “My teammate Larry and I race against the clock just like Ron here. We want to beat multiple sclerosis before it beats him.”
Through willpower or maybe his positive outlook, Willhoite has managed his symptoms. He rarely lets on anything is awry. But the disease is always there.
“If I talk a lot, I slur (my words),” he said.
He couldn’t work anymore. “Sometimes I would fall,” Willhoite said. “I still do that. It was something I was dealt. And I’m going to play it out.”
Willhoite joined the Marine Corps in 1969. “I wanted to go to Vietnam,” he said. Before he could ship overseas, he developed a skin infection so severe the doctors restricted him from travel. They said he’d die if he was exposed to those jungle conditions. He said he argued with his doctor, an officer. It didn’t matter.
Willhoite wanted to follow his father into the service. John Willhoite fought bravely during the Battle of Peleliu, which took place between September and November 1944. Peleliu was a tiny coral island in the Pacific occupied by Japanese forces. Maj. Gen. William Rupertus predicted a battle of four days, but Japanese fortifications and stiff resistance caused such ferocity that the casualty rate exceeded all other amphibious operations during the Pacific War, according to Wikipedia.
The elder Willhoite, who stood maybe 5 feet 3 inches tall, won the Silver Star. He took out a Japanese defensive fortification, or pill box, saving other soldiers who were pinned down. “A San Diego paper called him ‘the pint-sized Marine,'” George said.
At first, Willhoite didn’t think he belonged to the cadre of veterans in Sanger. He hadn’t seen combat. But the guys at AMVETS said he belonged, that he was one of them. Willhoite is also a member of the American Legion.
He is a strong proponent of the group now. And he uses his position as commander to to as much good as possible.
“We’re all about this community,” he said.
AMVETS Post 98, which has about 100 people in its membership, for years has had an annual hot dog luncheon, feeding about 700 people. The post also has its fish fry the first Friday night of every month through September. Members also do funerals (“a lot of them”) for fallen veterans, participate in parades and do the stuff few see. Those less visible jobs include taking care of and being there for veterans with post-traumatic stress, counseling those going through hard times or helping families cope. One veteran, who “lives on basically nothing,” is on Willhoite’s rounds. He brings the man food and checks in on him.
The AMVETS also provide a forum and clubhouse for members to get together and talk about whatever’s on their minds. For instance, just outside of the well-maintained facility at 812 K St., is a big concrete fire pit that’s clearly labeled to not use as a trash bin. It’s perfect for the occasional camp fire. And it, too, has a story.
The pit is really a massive concrete culvert or culvert coupling left over from a construction job. Amvets could have it if the post could arrange to haul it out. It must weigh as much as a bull sea lion, 1,000 pounds or so. Willhoite and his fellow members engineered it, getting it delivered.
“We can figure it out one way or another,” Viar said.
And that’s how they get things done. Everybody has expertise.
“These guys,” Willhoite said, and he paused, probably thinking of the guys, what they do and what it means to him. “I can call them up. I can get 12 to 20 guys here to do anything.”
Then he added, “If they don’t have doctor visits. We’re all getting older.”
That’s Willhoite. He injects humor whenever possible.
“You should see him on the road,” said T.J. Willhoite, grandson and former Sanger High football and baseball standout. T.J. was referring to road trips with the family. “We’re laughing the whole way there. He’s making jokes.
“He always makes sure somebody has a smile on their face. He’s been like that since I was a kid.”
George and Sandra had three kids, George Jr., Travis and Jessica. He has a bunch of grand kids. Seth, 10, can often be found at his side, helping out, being his shadow.
Willhoite said the group is working to attract younger members and expand its family. He said anybody is welcome any time. He mentioned a particular instance when a couple of kids, who said they were being chased by neighborhood bullies ran into the fenced lot looking for a way out the back. Amvets member Mike Ortiz (the creator of Sanger’s world-famous chili dog) gave them protection.
Ortiz follows the creed, Willhoite said: “We fought once for you. We’re still going to protect you.” And those kids didn’t have to worry. Any Amvet will go to bat for anybody in need, Willhoite said. Plus about 90 percent of them probably carry a firearm, he added.
Willhoite encouraged any veteran to join his group. All that’s required are discharge papers, or DD214, and $40.
The reporter can be contacted by email at email@example.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.
Original Source: Sanger man helps veterans and anybody else in need