Something to think about. Could have been us, our father, our child.... Lincoln man dies trying to save boy from drowning By CINDY LANGE-KUBICK / Lincoln Journal Star Don had just put his pole in the water. The big man put his jacket on. A cold front was approaching east Texas and you could feel the temperature drop. Don Wilkinson Jr. and his wife Loa Jean lived on Dudley Street. But the past couple years they’d been hauling their Cougar travel trailer down south to an RV park off Highway 35 near Rockport to take up residence as “Winter Texans.” At least that’s what the Corpus Christi Caller-Times called the 67-year-old Lincoln man who drowned last week saving a little boy. The fishing wasn’t too good that day, said Don’s fishing buddy Dennis Hand. The two RV park friends started Wednesday on one pier and as the afternoon wore on and the fish refused to bite, they moved to Aransas Pass, down the road. Don wore his straw hat. He had a stogie in the corner of his mouth, like always. They carried their tackle boxes and white buckets out on the pier. They didn’t say a word. Just got busy getting in one last try at a red fish or an ocean trout before sunset. Don fished quite a bit in Nebraska. He had more time after he retired as a boiler man at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He didn’t like to sit still, that’s why he still worked in season as a groundskeeper for the Lincoln Airport Authority. The only time he could bear sitting was when he was on a tractor — or sitting by the water with a fishing pole. He and Loa Jean had been in Texas since October. They always went to the weekly fish fry at the 35 RV Park. Every Wednesday morning he went to the 9 a.m. fishing chat in the clubhouse, all the retired guys talking about the best bait and what kind of lures to use. Last Wednesday two boys came running down the pier. They had short brown hair, slicked back. One wore a blue polo shirt and one wore a white polo shirt. Dennis thought they looked like twins, maybe 6 or 7 years old. He’s not sure what happened next. One of them slipped. He can’t remember if it was the boy in the white shirt or the blue shirt. The boy fell down and then off the pier, maybe 30 feet from shore. Don and Loa Jean got married eight years ago on Valentine’s Day. Don had one daughter, Janine Skinner, and three sons, Joe, Tim and Ronnie. Ronnie died in 1991. Loa Jean had a daughter, Deb Hier. Janine doesn’t ever remember seeing her dad swim. She doesn’t know if he knew how to do much more than paddle around. When that little boy fell off the pier the tide was low and there was no way Dennis or Don could reach down into the water and grab him. On the shore the little boy’s grandmother started screaming. He can’t swim! Somebody save him! Before Dennis knew it Don was climbing over the top of the wooden pier railing, his belly resting on the wood before he flopped over, still wearing his straw hat. He grabbed the boy, hauled him over to the pilings and held on. Dennis saw the look in his eyes. Like something wasn’t right. Another man came by in a fishing boat. He grabbed the 300-pound man, still clutching the boy and pulled them into shallow water. The boy was OK. His grandmother grabbed him. They left before the authorities could talk to them. Paramedics got Don’s heart beating again. But he died early Thursday morning. The kids couldn’t get there in time to say goodbye. They were there at the memorial service at the RV Park clubhouse. All the chairs were full. Dennis showed them an inflatable seat cushion. He tied a rope to it and wrote a message. We Remember You, Don, Feb. 16, 2006. He’s going to take it with him, every time he goes fishing, Dennis told them. He knows he can’t jump in the water and save a kid, but he can throw that cushion out and reel him in. On Saturday, before they drove back to Lincoln, Janine and her brother Tim went out to the pier. They took pictures. That cold front had swept through and an icy rain came down. Tim walked along a concrete pier, close to the wooden pier where their dad spent his last minutes. He wanted to touch the water. To see how cold it was, how it must have felt to his dad the day he became a hero. He had to bend down low. He looked to the right. He saw a hat lodged against the pier. A straw hat. They brought it home and cleaned it up. It will be at the memorial service Thursday. Right next to a picture of a big man smoking a stogie, happy to be fishing.