Charlie Wilson dies

By Holley Nees - email

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Former longtime East Texas congressman Charlie Wilson has died. Staff at Lufkin Memorial Hospital confirmed the report. He was 76.

According to a Memorial Hospital press release, Wilson died after suffering from cardio pulmonary arrest. He was pronounced dead at 12:16 p.m. in the hospital's emergency room.

At 6'4", Charlie Wilson was tall in stature and taller in life.

"Charlie was a giant," longtime friend Buddy Temple said. "We lost a giant and there won't be another one like him."

At 76 years old, Wilson had accomplished more than what he became famous for in the 2007 major motion picture, "Charlie Wilson's War." Tom Hanks portrayed wilson as the playboy congressman behind the most successful covert operation in U.S. history. But Temple says there was more to Wilson than his reputation.

"Charlie was absolutely the best friend a person could hope to have," Temple said. "He was totally loyal. He had unconditional love for his friends."

Temple was by Wilson's side for years, even today as Wilson fell ill.

"Charlie had attended a meeting of Temple Foundation this morning and after that he had collapsed and was brought to the hospital," Temple said.

Wilson had a history of heart problems. He had undergone a heart transplant in September 2007, and today doctors tried unsuccessfully to revive him. But, even in death, Wilson leaves his mark on East Texas. The Lufkin VA clinic bears his name for good reason.

"The VA clinic was an earmark," Temple said. "It was an earmark originally intended for Tyler and he just went in and changed Tyler to Lufkin."

The Big Thicket National Preserve and the Lockheed Martin plant in Lufkin were among many projects championed by the "Liberal from Lufkin."

"I never saw anybody who had a greater attachment to the people here in East Texas as Charlie did," Temple said.

An attachment that won't be broken, even in death.

Wilson served in the 2nd U.S. Congressional District from 1972-1996 and was known as the "Liberal from Lufkin." A book about his efforts in the U.S.'s covert war against Russia in Afghanistan was chronicled in the book, "Charlie Wilson's War," which was later made into a movie. Tom Hanks played the part of Wilson.

Wilson considered his greatest accomplishments as congressman to be the creation of the VA Hospital in Lufkin and the establishment of the Big Thicket National Preserve. The Lufkin VA clinic was renamed after Wilson in 2005.

Wilson is survived by his wife, Barbara, who he married in 1999, his sister, Sharon Allison, a niece and nephew. He was born in Trinity in 1933. Funeral services are pending.

Wilson received a heart transplant in September of 2007 in a Houston hospital.

During his congressional tenure, he was known as "Goodtime Charlie" for partying antics, which may have drew attention from the work he did in Congress. In 1980, Wilson was accused of snorting cocaine, but the investigation, was dropped due to lack of evidence.

In the book, author George Crile described an incident when a Trinity city councilman purposefully poisoned his dog and killed him, when Wilson was 13. Wilson described how he used his hardship driver's license to round up voters from the poor neighborhoods to vote in the councilman's election. Wilson said he told the voters as they got out of the car that he did not want to tell them which way to vote, but the councilman, Charles Hazard, killed his dog. Wilson said he drove 96 voters to the polls, and Hazard lost his reelection by 13 votes. Wilson described that as the day he fell in love with America.

He was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956 and served in the Navy from 1956 to 1960.

Former congressman Jim Turner, who was elected into Wilson's vacated district, described Wilson as a "dear friend."

"He was one of those that was a true patriot," Turner said. "When he retired, he helped me in the election to take over his seat. I really feel his partying style overshadowed the work he did in Congress."

Turner said he was proud that the final piece of legislation he worked through Congress was naming the VA clinic after Wilson.

Temple said the death has come as a shock to everyone.

"Charlie's wife, Barbara, is suffering the shock, as are we all, but she's doing fine," Temple said. "She's a strong woman and I'm confident she will make it through."

"Charlie loved this nation and had deep respect and gratitude for the men and women who defended her; he was a force for veterans his entire career. Throughout his life, this was evident in his thoughts, words, and deeds," stated Anthony Zollo, M.D., Charles Wilson VA Outpatient Clinic director, in a press release.  "The VA is a richer organization because of Mr. Wilson. He will be deeply missed."

"I am saddened to hear of Congressman Wilson's passing," Sen. John Cornyn said in a press statement. "He was a lifetime public servant with a fiery passion for the people of East Texas, our men and women in uniform, our veterans and our freedoms. I have had the great privilege to work alongside him on several issues of importance to our veterans in Texas, and I will miss his leadership and dedication. My wife and I send our deepest condolences to Barbara as she and her loved ones mourn the loss of this remarkable individual."

"Charlie was a friend and colleague of mine," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said in a press statement. "I was a news reporter covering the Legislature when Charlie was a State Senator and then I served with him in Congress.  We worked together on the ERINT (now PAC 3) missile project for his district.  Because of his absolute devotion to our nation's veterans, we named the VA clinic in Lufkin in his honor.

"Charlie Wilson was one of a kind-- loved by all who knew him, and he will be missed as one of our most distinguished and colorful leaders," Hutchison said. "He was a giant, not just in stature but in his love for America and especially America's men and women in uniform.  He was a dynamic presence in Congress and on the national stage, but he always called Lufkin home."

Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) released the following statement Wednesday on the passing of former Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson:

"Charlie Wilson was proof of what one man can do when he is determined. As a result, the world is a different place because of Charlie. He was a man of purpose, who obviously enjoyed life. Among his greatest loves, he loved this country, he loved veterans, he loved east Texas, and, of course, Barbara who brought him such strength, comfort and stability these last several years. Because of his infectious sense of humor, it was tough to be around Charlie without smiling. East Texans have shared with me that, sure, they knew Charlie had personal issues, but he was always honest about them. We will miss that kind of candor. He was even gracious enough to share the insights from his vast experience with a Republican like me any time I asked. As an east Texas icon and friend, he will be sorely missed. Our sympathy and prayers go out to Barbara and his family."

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