Remembering Dr. Joe Wilson

The obituary written by George Boerger first appeared in the October 2018 edition of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society Newsletter.

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Dr. Joe Wilson made incredible contributions to uncovering our Wendish history, a story he discovered through his Wendish bride, Adele Herbrich. Our paths crossed in 1986 when Weldon Mersiovsky pointed me in Dr. Wilson’s direction for help in my own family research. He was a help to me over the years and a wonderful person. Having great respect and esteem for him, I always referred to him as Dr. Wilson, even though I counted him as a friend.

Joe never sought the spot light. He was much happier researching and writing than mingling with large crowds of people. St. Paul Lutheran congregation welcomed Dr. Wilson’s expertise as he took on the task of translating birth, baptismal, confirmation and death records recorded by Rev. Jan Kilian and Kilian’s son, Rev. Herman Kilian. St. Paul members had as much respect for him as he had for them. It was a cherished relationship that lasted for decades and spanning three pastors.

Joe learned Wendish but it was probably only his fifth language. He studied French in college and in 2005, when he met my wife, he immediately spoke French to her. My wife commented that it was the way French was spoken around 1900 and he spoke it well. It had been more than 50 years since he studied the language in college, yet he retained it exactly. How is that possible?

One of Joe’s earlier and largest projects was translating from the old German script to English the baptismal records recorded by Rev. Jan Kilian. Kilian’s records were descriptive and meticulous, but so was Dr. Wilson. With a little help from a graduate student assistant, the records were translated word-by-word and phrase by phrase. Everything was proofed and reproofed, as Dr. Wilson wanted no errors. The result of this work was a book that has become the foundation of family research for many people of Wendish descent. Wilson’s quest for perfection has been immensely beneficial to users of the translated records.

In translating Kilian’s death records, it was a challenge to accurately translate cause of death because terms used in the 1800s were quite different to modern-day medical terms. But Dr. Wilson researched and deciphered Kilian’s words.

In the early 1990s, computers were not what they are today. While Joe employed the latest technology, the index was still prepared by hand, and that in itself was a major undertaking. There are several thousand entries of names including the baptized children, the parents, and the witnesses/sponsors/godparents. As an example of the challenges he faced with his translation project, the index lists six different Johann Noack’s, a Johann Ernst Noack, two Johann Hermann Noack’s, and a Paul Noack whose first name – Johann – was not recorded in the baptismal record. As anyone who has researched his/her Wendish ancestors has learned, the Wends often went by their middle name, and just as often their first and middle names would be reversed in records. Can you imagine figuring out if this is Johann Noack #3 or an additional Johann Noack? There were also seven Maria Noack’s! It would be enough to give me a headache!

Dr. Wilson was one of the great pioneers of research on our Wendish ancestors. While he is no longer with us, his work will outlast us all.

George Boerger

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