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Even though he's gone, Jamie still tugs at hearts

By BILL STEVENS
Published December 23, 2006


Baby Jesus laughed and tossed hay in the manger. Visitors might have noticed the question mark-shaped scar on the back of his little head.

Hard to say exactly what James Calvin Wilson thought about his theatrical debut in 1990. He was only 6. He couldn't talk. Blind since birth, he couldn't see the audience.

Joseph and Mary had their own profound health problems, as did the wise men. But on that magical night at a place devoted to the care and comfort of the afflicted, the boy portraying the newborn savior tugged at hearts and made the healthy thankful and humble.

He would play Jesus again the next year, but then he got too big. They replaced him with a doll.

* * *

Thanksgiving Day at the Angelus is always a big deal, and so it was last month. The staff had cooked enough turkeys and trimmings to feed an army - or at least the 32 residents in wheelchairs. The Angelus protects and serves severely handicapped people, most with cerebral palsy.

When a staff member delivered Jamie Wilson to the dining hall for the Thanksgiving feast, he slept in his wheelchair. He wouldn't wake up.

In the middle of serving, Pauline Shaver and her husband, Dave, raced him to the emergency room. Doctors performed surgery to relieve pressure on Jamie's brain. He had lived with a shunt in his head since birth and had many brushes with death over the years, but it was unclear what caused the latest crisis.

Twenty years earlier, child welfare officials had placed the badly damaged and neglected toddler in Pauline's care in St. Petersburg, where she began the Angelus in 1979. He was among the first of her "kids" to relocate to the northwest Pasco countryside when volunteers built the first of several homes for them on 17 acres.

Jamie had cerebral palsy, but he also had a serious heart defect and asthma. Surgeons had to break his hips to set his deformed legs. His mental capacity would never advance beyond that of a small child.

"He had so many issues," Pauline said, "but he was the cutest little guy - all ears. He was always smiling."

* * *

The Angelus residents' dependency, and in some cases helplessness, lead many to refer to them as kids. But several have grown up with the facility. Brothers Gene and Jimmy have been around since 1980, and they're 44 and 42. Tom, who plays Joseph in this year's Christmas pageant, will turn 44 in January.

Jamie grew up at Angelus, but unlike others, he had no family. For him, Pauline and Dave became mom and dad.

They fell in love with little things - the way he squeaked like Donald Duck, the kisses he blew, the way he pinched butts with a playful innocence. They beamed when he got his diploma from Hudson High School last year.

"He made us proud," Pauline said. "He made us laugh."

But the Shavers always had to be on guard. Jamie was fragile, and there were other trips to the emergency room.

Meanwhile, the number of plaques in the memorial garden increased. Pauline, 69, easily plucks the names from her memory:

Brian, Terry, Sarah, David, Kevin, Connie, Arthur, Denise.

This week they will add another name.

James.

He died on Tuesday.

"Jamie has gone home for Christmas," said Pauline, exhausted after weeks of worry. "We'll miss him so much, but his suffering is over."

* * *

The Angelus still puts on the Christmas pageant every year. Pauline views it as a gift to the community, which provides so much support to her "kids." Country music legend Charlie Daniels, who for years has performed free concerts to raise money for the home, narrates a recording of the story of Christ's birth as residents sit in white robes. Afterward, they join in the singing of carols, a guttural but joyful sound that leaves guests weeping. Then everyone heads to the day care hall for refreshments and fellowship.

They'll do that again tonight, as the pageant wraps up another season starting at 6:30. Once again, as when he played the baby Jesus, attention will center on James Wilson, a young man who survived by the generosity of strangers and then passed by the grace of God.

Christmas pageant final performance tonight

The Angelus' final performance of its annual Christmas pageant is at 6:30 p.m. today at 12413 Hudson Ave., 3 miles east of Little Road. For details, call (727) 856-1775 or visit www.theangelus.com.