I just heard about the passing of Ernie Wilson, a former President of ALPCA, member number 361. It deeply saddens me that he's no longer around. I knew him pretty well and I had gone to visit him at his home several times through my seven-odd years as a member of ALPCA.
I joined the club in 1995, as soon as I heard that it existed. I received my first issues of the ALPCA Newsletter in August of that year, and shortly after, letters arrived in my mailbox from people who welcomed me to the club and asked if I wanted to trade. Trouble was, I had nothing to trade. But Ernie would fix that.
His first letter to me arrived in September. He welcomed me to the hobby, described a few recent Canadian plates he had acquired, and encouraged me to trade, if I could. It was ironic that Ernie lived in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; that's where I grew up. For years, I thought I was the only license plate collector in the entire world, and all the while, I had lived in his end of town—even gone past his house—without even knowing that I was practically on the doorstep of another license plate collector.
We met face-to-face for the first time in December of 1995. He was an old-timer, and I was a 21-year-old kid in university, with an enthusiasm for license plates, but without a dollar to spend. Seeing his collection was like walking into a new world. He had dealer plates! He had diplomats! He had porcelains! He had all kinds of stuff that I never even knew existed. (I was wet-behind-the-ears, but still... holy cow). I anxiously wanted to take part in this new hobby, but like I said, I had nothing. So Ernie practically gave me a box of plates to get me started.
As I progressed through university, I was able to earn a little money and actually get a collection started up, thanks in no small part to the traders Ernie had given me. I would wind up back in the Soo a few times per year, and I always dropped by Ernie's place to chat about plates, the government, city news, or whatever we felt like. Sometimes he'd tell me stories from his youth, from when he was living in Sylvan Valley, about 20 miles to the East. He remembered the name of every young man in every black-and-white snapshot. Some went off to war and returned with brides; others were less fortunate. He remembered them all.
I moved far away from our mutual hometown in 1998, so I wasn't able to drop by like I did before. We still wrote from time to time. Ernie never had a computer, so we'd do everything the old-fashioned way (if you knew him, you're probably nodding your head). After I became ALPCA's Webmaster, he congratulated me, although I'm not sure if he ever totally understood what my job was.
I had a little display of nearly-repeating numbers at last year's convention in Peoria, and one of the plates I had received in a trade from Ernie. He got a kick out of the picture of my display that ran in the magazine, and he wrote to say how he had a few others. His letter reminded me that I hadn't seen him in a while, so I wrote back to say I'd be in the Soo that Christmas and I'd drop by.
I did pay him a visit, and he looked remarkably good. He did mention how his health was slowly declining and that visits to the doctor were happening more often, but he was the same old Ernie, still living and breathing plates, still writing by hand, still leafing through letters, plate mags, pieces of cardboard and old photos. We talked over some instant coffee and I stayed for hours. He let me have a few older photos-- mostly shots of old collectors long gone, and there were a few pictures of him-- a big, tall, robust guy, with a wide grin and a brushcut, standing proudly in front of a wall of shiny license plates, with the dates going no higher than 1961.
As I put my coat on, I wished him well and said I'd see him again, probably in March, during my next stop in the Soo. That was seven weeks ago-- I wouldn't get another chance to see him.
Ernie was a generous guy, and an all-around great person in this hobby, which has benefitted tremendously from his presence. I'll sure miss him.