Passages: Rollin Wilson

Rollin Wilson (July 14, 1926 — Nov. 7, 2008)
Young Life’s longest-serving leader loved by thousands.

In 1952, Rollin Wilson began a Young Life club in partnership with Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis, Tenn. For 50 years, Wilson led that club which attracted hundreds of kids every week. In a contest to name the behemoth, it became known as CFAPTHI, “Can’t find a place (big enough) to have it.” The name and the club continue to this day.

At the November 2008 memorial service celebrating Wilson’s life, the pastor invited those attending to stand if “Rollin was an influence in your decision to follow Christ.” Hundreds of CFAPTHI “kids” stood.

Barry Jenkins, a co-leader with Wilson, said of that moment, “If you simply do the math, you will know that I am not exaggerating when I tell you that Rollin’s service could have been held in the FedEx Forum with thousands of people whose lives were dramatically impacted by Rollin. There are tens of thousands of people who are not far removed from Rollin in their spiritual family tree.”

Brad Baker, Young Life staffer for 38 years, is one of Wilson’s spiritual sons. “There was warmth about Rollin. He loved kids. He loved Jesus. That’s why he loved Young Life.”

You could say that Wilson loved Young Life camp before he even met Young Life. Wilson spent summers as a boy at Round-Up Lodge in Buena Vista, Colo., a property later purchased by Young Life and renamed Frontier Ranch. A serendipitous meeting at a Sunday school class led Wilson and then Area Director Tom Bade to talk about Frontier Ranch and Wilson’s summers there. Not long afterward, Jim Rayburn invited Wilson and his wife, Margaret, to be his guests for a week of camp.

Baker recalled Wilson’s reflections about that week when Rayburn was camp speaker: “It was like I was hearing the Gospel for the first time,” said Wilson. “What changed me was seeing the faith of the work crew and summer staff. I needed to be more like that.”

And he was. Baker said, “Rollin picked up Rayburn’s way of capturing hearts and drawing us to Jesus.” In more than 50 years of leadership, Wilson pioneered weeklong ski trips during spring break and he organized the first Memphis Family Week that became the model for family camp at Trail West. He was loved for being a master storyteller with a big heart and a robust sense of humor.

But Barry Jenkins believes Wilson would silence any bragging about him. “Rollin would tell you that anyone can do what he did. For 50 years, he just kept showing up.”

“I try to imitate Rollin all the time, his ways and his talks. I can’t do what Rollin did, but what I can do is keep showing up in kids’ lives.” Tens of thousands of Rollin Wilson’s kids could tell you that makes an eternal difference.