Rev. Wilbert Lee “W.L.” Ammons drinks 25 to 30 cups of caffeinated coffee a day and still sleeps like a rock at night. It’s tough not to when he stays as busy as he does. A month shy of his 93rd birthday, the longtime preacher still makes his fair share of rounds, has a great number of stories to tell, bountiful sermons to deliver and a lot of living to do.
After all, he still has 27 years before he gets to 120, he says.
“The doctor said I’d make it to 130,” Ammons said with a wry smile, standing inside the living room of his Clinton home.
After a lifetime of standing, whether in the pulpit, in the fields or on an assembly line, Ammons doesn’t mind being on his feet and staying busy. He prefers it, and does both in spades.
“It’s good living,” Ammons explained of his longevity. “I try to take one day at a time and not worry a whole lot.”
Ammons grew up in Sampson County as one of 14 children — 10 girls and four boys — of William and Mildred Simmons Ammons. He almost didn’t grow up at all. He weighed just 2 pounds at birth and his parents didn’t think he would make it. He was the first boy, yet his younger brother received the William Jr. designation, which Ammons saw as a slight.
“I was sort of pushed aside,” said Ammons, who officiated his parents’ 50th anniversary celebration and is now one of just two Ammons children still living, a younger sister being the other. “I outlived them all.”
The oldest Coharie male, Sampson native Ammons will turn 93 on Sept. 25, and has ministered to others for 64 of those years and counting. He has made the most of his time, as many can attest.
His living room alone speaks volumes, from military medals to accolades from the church and Native American community to hundreds of portraits of family, friends, peers and loved ones of all sorts. So plentiful are they that picture frames bump up against each other along all four walls and an adjacent hallway.
A message posted in his kitchen reads, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Randy Simmons can attest to that. Sitting with Ammons, he talks about how much the preacher, who he calls “bishop,” has shaped his own life. Growing up in the church, Simmons recalled the times he and his brother Steven would imitate Ammons.
“It’s that old quote ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,’” Simmons noted. “The church was our main place of meeting and the most honored position was pastor. He was the person we always loved and admired and wanted to pattern our life after. He’s a great man. He really cares about other people and puts everyone above himself. He’s helped so many young preachers and gave them their start.”
Simmons would know. He’s one of them.
Simmons now pastors at Holly Grove Holiness Church on Indian Town Road, where Ammons was the first ever pastor, along the way serving three different stints at the church. Simmons’ father Jesse David “J.D.” Simmons Jr. was also a preacher at Holly Grove.
It was on May 10, 1951 that Ammons was saved. He immediately began preaching, giving his first sermon on July 5, 1951 at Holly Grove Free Will Baptist Church, as it was named then. He was officially ordained three years later.
For 20-plus years, Ammons has served as leader of the Bible Free Will Holiness Conference, headquartered in Clinton, which now includes three churches but was previously triple that. Other than Holly Grove, Bible FWH also includes East Carolina Holiness on U.S. 421 in Clinton, and Mt. Sinai Holiness in Bolton. Ammons pastored all three churches, most recently retiring after 22 years at Mt. Sinai.
“At one point, I was pastoring three churches at a time, pastoring at a prison camp at Lumberton and preaching on a radio station in Laurinburg,” Ammons recalled. “I preached eight weeks of revival straight in Robeson County and South Carolina. I preached every night, and twice or three times on Sunday. There were 63 people saved in one week.”
He still preaches “anywhere I can,” delivering sermons at churches in Pinehurst, Maxton and back at East Carolina in Clinton in recent weeks. While sometimes he gets someone to drive him on Sunday, Ammons still insists “I can drive better now than I ever called.”
“I’m his pastor (at Holly Grove) now but he’s never there because he’s preaching somewhere else,” Simmons says with a laugh. “He’s there once in a while. On Wednesday for Bible study he’s always there.”
Ammons wakes up at 4 a.m. every day, like he’s still going to his job at Lundy’s Packing, where he worked for some 30 years.
“I’m busy,” Ammons explains.
It’s not uncommon to see Ammons go to his mailbox dressed in his Sunday best. Every day is Sunday for Ammons. His hair slicked back, Ammons is always in a suit and keeps a dozen or so ties pre-knotted, along with numerous bolo ties, on hand in his bedroom.
“I feel naked without my coat,” Ammons conceded.
He dons a POW/MIA pin on one lapel, the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs on the other. He always keeps a pen and a pocket calendar in his coat pocket “just in case you are asked to preach you can be ready.”
Along with being willing to lend an ear and pearls of wisdom for those who seek it, he is a fount of knowledge and despite his more than nine decades, his memory does not often fail him.
“He knows the history of the church, the history of our conference and the history of our people in this community,” Simmons said. “There’s nobody in the Native American community that doesn’t know him and have a high regard for him.”
He received an Eagle feather this year.
“That’s the highest honor a Native American can receive,” Simmons noted.
“I have two,” Ammons added.
Among his many awards, Ammons was named Indian Elder of the Year in 2008. Nominated by the Coharie Indian Tribe, Ammons received the award at the 33rd annual N.C. Indian Unity Conference sponsored by the United Tribes of N.C.
Along with pastoral duties that take him across the state, he also serves as pastor and sergeant-at-arms for the American Legion Post No. 22. He is a World War II veteran, serving his country with honor.
Drafted Thanksgiving of 1942 at the age of 20, Ammons spent time at Fort Bragg and at basic training in Arizona and California before being shipped overseas.
“I was young, wild, crazy and scared to death,” he recalled. “I’d never been nowhere.”
On his wall, Ammons has the Honorable Service Lapel Pin, also called the Ruptured Duck, awarded to U.S. military service members discharged under honorable conditions during World War II. He served in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, fighting battles in Northern France, Rheinland (Germany) and Central Europe. He was awarded the American Service Medal, WWII Victory Medal and European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, as well as three battle stars.
During his time in the military, Ammons boxed a little, meeting the then-World Heavyweight Champ Joe Louis, whose hand he shook. He even received a few training tips from the man. While Ammons’ boxing career was short lived — he broke his nose in the 11th round of a bout with a Latin boxer, woke up in the hospital days later and hung up his gloves for good shortly thereafter — those skills came into play in Nazi Germany.
“That’s when I was glad I was taking that boxing training,” Ammons said of being in hand-to-hand combat in Germany. “It was you or them.”
As a Technician Fourth Grade in the 387th Field Artillery Battalion, he was also recognized as an expert rifleman.
“We were on the front lines for 195 consecutive days without being relieved,” Ammons said.
There, he saw Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII, and later U.S. president.
“Anytime you want to see Eisenhower, you go to the front,” Ammons said with a smile. “I remember seeing him and he told us ‘you should be on your mother’s knee. You boys aren’t nothing but kindergartners.”
Eisenhower had four hand grenades on both sides of his belt along with two pearl .45s. He called the young soldiers puppies, stating he was a “war dog,” having already been through one World War.
“He was a tough man,” said Ammons, who was Eisenhower’s driver on occasion. “He said ‘with your blood and my brain we’re going to win this war.’”
Simmons just shakes his head and smiles. He’s heard most of the stories, each more impressive than the next.
“There’s no one old enough to verify it,” Simmons said jokingly.
In Clinton, Ammons’ name is on a brick at the Veterans Memorial Park on U.S. 701 Business and a bronze mold of his hands is on display at the North Carolina Veterans Park in Fayetteville.
“I represent all the soldiers of Sampson County,” Ammons stated.
Ammons stayed in the Army until being discharged from Camp San Luis Obispo, Calif., in September 1945. On Aug. 1, 1945, Ammons came home on 30-day leave and got married to wife Alice. The two adopted four children.
After WWII, he farmed for a while before going to Lundy’s where he worked until 1980.
“She took care of the farm while I went to Lundy’s,” he said.
Alice passed away about five years ago, but she is everywhere in the pictures inside Ammons’ home.
“She trusted me and I trusted her,” he said. “We grew up together. She would grab you and hug you and think nothing of it.”
The two actually walked to school together when there was just a one-room schoolhouse down the road.
They grew old together, something that would never have happened, Ammons pointed out, if he had not lived right, never drinking or smoking, and always seeking guidance from the Lord. He also had a praying mother at home, which doesn’t hurt either, he noted.
“I went overseas and didn’t get a scratch on me,” Ammons attested. “I don’t know how many I saw fall at my feet and I moved them. I’ve been lucky. That convinced me it was something else outside of me. The Lord took care of me and I wised up.”
While many loved ones have passed, his living room is chock-full of conversation starters, with hundreds of pictures, artwork and accolades on display that you couldn’t possibly get through in a lifetime of afternoons. It took a lifetime of them to accrue the memories.
“He’s done so much,” said Simmons, “I can’t keep it all straight. He likes to say that he’s been around so long he knew about the Dead Sea when it was only sick. He’s been around a long time and done a lot of great work.”He can’t help but have a lot of stories when you’re 93.”
On Sunday, Aug. 30, a celebration will be held at Holly Grove in honor of Ammons. It is a recognition that is well-deserved, Simmons noted.
“He’s an inspiring person,” Simmons remarked. “I had a great life growing up and I enjoyed my life, and I think a lot of that is because my dad was saved and the bishop had everything to do with that.If I get old, I hope I would be old like him. He’s a legend in his own time, and after his time he’ll leave a great legacy.”
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.