ASTORIA — He moved from shy stutterer, to brawler, to cop. Now he’s a Catholic super-volunteer.
Tim Wilker, a 72-year-old member of St. Mary, Star of the Sea Parish here, is a mentor to teens who are performing community service. He and wife Janet tend the parish grounds. He works for the parish food bank and delivers food to hungry kids, shelters and retirement homes. He’s a Knight of Columbus who sets up tables and chairs for all kinds of events. On average, Wilker spends two hours daily helping at his parish, set on a hill overlooking the mouth of the Columbia River.
Why the enduring enthusiasm?
“Because I belong,” says the ex-Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputy.
He stuttered badly as a child and young teen. When he entered high school, he was barely 5 feet tall. When he was not being teased, he was alone.
His mother was Presbyterian and his father a Mormon who didn’t practice the religion. Tim didn’t attend church regularly past age 9, but had a pack of Catholic cousins who occasionally took him to Mass. He recalls feeling comfortable, despite not knowing Latin. He was fascinated with confessionals, especially the lights that blinked on over the door when people inside knelt to lay bare their souls.
One summer as a teen, he went to work at his uncle’s ranch in Idaho. The old-school uncle forced him to read to the ranch hands each morning and even had the boy stuff pebbles in his cheeks so his mouth and mind had a more urgent problem than stuttering. It worked.
The same summer, Tim hit a growth spurt and did not stop until he was 6-foot-2 and covered in muscle.
“I was tall, I could talk and I was strong,” he recalls. “I was also mean.” He sought revenge on the people who had teased him. He broke noses and ended up with his own crooked nose. He was smacked by a baseball bat and fractured his fingers while punching.
His Scottish grandmother confronted him. “Stop,” she said. “You are becoming just like them.”
He listened and went out for training as a deputy, a career that would last decades. At times, he was not sure how long he’d live. When a street dance on Division Street turned into a melee, he ended up with a switchblade in his back.
“It’s been a colorful life,” he says.
After retiring from the sheriff’s force, Wilker worked security and collected claims for a trucking company. His imposing size and direct manner were beneficial attributes.
He and Janet, married 45 years with two children, lived on a yacht sailing up and down the West Coast.
A few years back, they sold their boat and bought a house in Astoria. Feeling compelled to faith and community, and having an urge to give back, the couple began comparing various churches. After Mass at St. Mary, Wilker told Janet, “I found home.”
In 2013, he and Janet took their son and his girlfriend to Europe, with a stop in Rome. The Vatican left Wilker in awe. Then news came that a pope was to be chosen. Pope Francis emerged.
“At the Vatican, something personally happened to me,” Wilker says. “It was not just physical beauty. People were praying — when I saw how much reverence they had, it touched me.”
The couple became Catholic that Easter and soon were among the most active parishioners. In addition to service, Wilker is a regular adorer of the Eucharist.
Those who come to relieve him say they hear him speaking aloud to Jesus.
Wilker says he is a new man, but his old skills still come in handy. When a transient couple took advantage of a retired priest’s kindness and began stealing and using his credit card, the parish called on him to assess the situation. Wilker does not specify what he said or did, but the couple skedaddled and has not been heard from in Astoria since.
Wilker wakes up happy and goes to bed happy. He remains Catholic, he says, because he has a role and is in touch with the Almighty through prayer, other people and the Eucharist.
“It’s not so much I am in a search for God,” he says. “It’s that God is there waiting for me.”