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Golfing and globe-trotting

Saturday, March 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:56 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Roy Wilson watches his golf shot with Lyle Burrey, right, at the A.L. Gustin Golf Course during a nine-hole game on March 13. Wilson plays golf with a small group on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

A bookcase in Roy Wilson’s living room strains under some 30 photo albums — a snapshot of his life at 78: “Germany-Austria.” “Elephant Survey, Kenya, Africa.” “English Countryside-Paris.” “Spain 1.” “Spain 2.” “Jan. 2006 Brazil up the Amazon River with Paul Olesen.”

Each photo album holds 300 pictures.

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But this bookcase doesn’t come near to covering his whole collection. On each trip, Wilson estimates he snaps around 700 images on his Samsung digital camera.

Wilson spends his retired years seeing the world through his camera lens. He’s visited 28 countries and every continent except Antarctica, which is next on his list. When he’s at home in Columbia, Wilson can be found on any of the city’s three golf courses.

He didn’t plan it that way. Indeed, during his two-plus decades as a photographer for the University Eye Clinic, Wilson said he never felt he earned enough to save for a secure retirement.

He was almost 40 before he settled into his career at the Eye Clinic. After college at Oklahoma State University, he served in the Korean War, then came to MU to start a doctoral research program. He interrupted it to move to California, marry and then divorce before returning to Columbia. That’s when he answered an ad for an opening at the Eye Clinic.

It was 1969, and Wilson’s starting salary was $8,000 a year. In 1993, he retired — nine months ahead of schedule — to care for his wife, Christina, who had cancer.

She died a year later. At age 65, he found himself with no job, no wife and no plan for retirement.

But then Wilson got a nice surprise.

He attended a university seminar on retirement, did some calculations and realized that once he started receiving his pension and Social Security checks, he would bring in the same amount every month that he made while working full time.

“I’m one of the luckiest people I know,” Wilson says. “It was all a shock to me. I do have a little money left over every month to play with.”

And play he does.

He usually signs on for adventures with a low-budget travel group (“If you expect to be pampered, don’t go.”). It’s one of the luxuries he affords himself as a widower. As much as Wilson misses his wife, he doesn’t think she would have enjoyed these ventures:

“She wouldn’t want to go trekking through the jungle.”

Now a framed 5-by-7 inch photo of Christina graces an end table in the living room of Wilson’s home in north Columbia. A coffee table in the same room holds an aged-looking globe and treasures from every corner of it. Bone jewelry from Tonga; two Spanish wool finger puppets (a black sheep and a wolf), a bag of sand from the Gobi Desert.

One wall of Wilson’s “war room” is completely covered with huge maps and posters from exotic locales. A map of the world, marked with small red dots, charts all the places he has been. There are no dots on the United States.

“That would just be a waste of ink,” says Wilson, who has traveled extensively in all the states except the six northeast of New York.

Even so, Wilson says his most memorable trip was on native soil. In 2005 he took a cross-country trip, from Chicago to Los Angeles, across Route 66 with two 20-something Austrians, Stefan and Martin, he had met during a trans-Siberian train trip.

They spent a year planning the route for the two younger men’s first-time visit to the United States. Wilson devoted two photo albums to the adventure. The three are pictured at the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and the Hoover Dam. They wrote “Route 66” in the sand at Santa Monica State Beach. And every night, they stopped and found a bar with live music.

“You have to stop at nights or you miss out,” Wilson says. “You just don’t go to bed.”

On the same cluttered wall in Wilson’s “war room,” a National Geographic map of Chile shows two different journeys. A pink highlighter traces Wilson’s first trip to the country in 2004, the only trip he’s ever had to cut short. The map and its markings tell the story of Wilson’s brush with death — and his drive to always finish the journey he starts.

One night in Chile, five travelers split five bottles of wine at a French restaurant in Puerto Varas. After dinner they decided to walk along the coast, and somewhere along the way, Wilson took a dangerous fall.

The details are blurry. The last picture taken on his camera was of Wilson and a friend standing in front of a bay, but Wilson doesn’t remember falling.

By the time he regained consciousness, the rescue workers had already cut off his shirt and camera strap. He had a severely broken wrist; medics told him he wasn’t stable enough to fly home for treatment. An orthopedic surgeon in nearby Puerto Montt put a metal plate in his wrist, charged the $5,000 bill to his credit card (“It would have been at least $15,000 here!”), and Wilson flew home.

Four months later, he knew something wasn’t right. He suffered headaches and dizzy spells, and his speech had changed.

He finally saw a doctor at home, and was told he had bilateral subdural hematomas. The fall in Chile had likely caused severe head trauma that went ignored. As a result, blood had leaked between his brain and skull. To drain the cavity, doctors had to drill four dime-sized holes in his cranium.

“They said I was lucky to be alive,” he remembers.

The four holes have formed permanent indentions in his scalp, the front two barely visible when looking at Wilson straight on. They are now more memorabilia from a life of adventure.

“It’s kind of neat at parties, because somebody’ll look at you half-drunk and say ‘what’s that?’ and I’ll say ‘I used to be a little devil and had horns,’ ” he says, laughing.

And on the map of Chile, a red marker traces Wilson’s journey back to the region the two following years. A year after his injury, he traveled through Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina, and the next year spent six days floating the Amazon.

When he’s not traveling, Wilson’s on the golf course. He plays at the MU course as soon as it opens — when the temperature sneaks above 32 degrees. He has played in 101-degree weather.

In the summer of 2003, Wilson worked out what he called the perfect system. He’d play the 18-hole MU course in the morning, followed by 18 holes at L.A. Nickell Golf Course in the afternoon.

Then, “after the guys got off work,” he’d go out to Lake of the Woods for a final nine holes — every day.

“It built up my stamina,” he says. The following fall, at 74, Wilson took a four-day, 12,500-foot trek up three mountain passes to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Now, at 77, Wilson is still golfing, and still planning his next trek — the one place not yet marked on his world map — for January 2008.

“Antarctica,” he says. “I almost have to do it in the next two years, because I’m getting old.”


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