BY BARBARA WELLS, GUEST WRITER TO THE TIMES and COMPILED BY KIMBERLY D. COLLINS, STAFF WRITER
SANFORD – On April 22, 2022, a City of Sanford Park was dedicated to Mother Ruby Lee Wilson. At the dedication ceremony for the Mother Ruby Wilson Park at Academy Manor, a severely damaged portrait of Timothy and Mother Ruby Lee Wilson was on display. Just one year later, on April 23, 2023, a ceremony celebrating the unveiling of the restored portrait was held at the New Life Word Center Church.
The original portrait, painted by an unknown artist by the last name of Abbott in the early 70s, was on display in the lobby area of the rebuilt Good Samaritan Home. Even when the GSH changed ownership, the portrait was still there. It is still unknown how the portrait went missing, but one day it was just gone and thought to be lost forever. Then one day it was discovered on a trash pile in the Historical Georgetown area of Sanford, by Freddie Ganas as he was driving by.
On a Saturday morning in December of 2021, Martha Hardy Sanders, the docent at the small museum inside the Historic Hopper Academy in Sanford, welcomed 46 people and entertained them with stories about her time at Hopper Academy as a child. In the crowd that day was a gentleman named Fred Ganas. Mr. Ganas told Mrs. Sanders about a portrait that he had recently discovered, discarded on a trash pile in the area on 9th street. In its elegant frame, the portrait caught his eye as he drove by and wondered why anyone would throw away such a piece. Mr. Ganas took the portrait home and hung it on his wall for several months as he tried to identify the couple.
After hearing Mrs. Sanders’ presentation that morning, and speaking with her about it, Mr. Ganas decided to donate the portrait to the museum at Hopper Academy. He went home to retrieve the mysterious piece of art and promptly delivered it right back into the care of Mrs. Sanders and the staff at the Museum.
The efforts to identify the couple in the portrait continued for several months. After numerous Facebook posts met with negative results, Mrs. Sanders decided to try a more ‘old-fashioned’ approach and reached out to the Sanford Herald for help. In late March, the Herald ran the piece, “Portrait Found: Can you Identify This Couple?” Just a few weeks later, on April 11, 2022, the mystery was solved when Pastor Leonard Wilson knocked on Sanders’ door and said, “that’s my mother and father, and today is my Mother’s Birthday!”
Quite a few people had a part in the process that led up to the restoration and subsequent unveiling of this long-lost portrait of this couple that made huge contributions to the Sanford community that are still seen and felt to this day. The actual restoration was done by Hollingsworth Fine Arts of Orlando, and the digitized copies were done by RT Art Fine Art Printing, also of Orlando.
The original restored portrait is now securely in the possession of the Wilson’s daughter, Mrs. Barbara Wilson Wells. There is also a digitized copy in the Sanford Museum on First Street and in the Goldsboro Museum – which will soon be rebuilt with 4 new galleries, including the new Mother Ruby Wilson Gallery. A digitized copy will be displayed there, and the final copy will be on display at the Historic Hopper Academy Museum.
Among Mother Ruby Wilson’s many, many contributions to the Sanford and Central Florida community are the churches and nursing home that she established. First, in 1939, Freewill Holiness Church in Sanford, (West Sanford Freewill Holiness Church), and years later, after building a sizable following from Daytona, Freewill Holiness Church of Daytona Beach was built. Both churches are still in existence to this day.
In 1946, Mother Wilson established the Good Samaritan Home in Sanford. Opening a facility where people of color could receive medical care and recover from illness and injury was just an extension of the numerous works Mother Ruby Wilson had always done in the community. Dr. GH Starke, the only Black physician in the area at the time, devoted many, many volunteer hours to the patients and staff at the facility.
Mother Ruby Wilson was such a loving and nurturing woman. She clothed and fed those in need daily, without regard for income or skin color. All the children in the community called her ‘Mother’ and she cared for their needs as well. She showed love to everyone and was a role model and mentor to women – sharing her wisdom and life skills along the way. Another outgrowth of her love for children and her community was the founding of Rest Haven Kindergarten in 1959 which Mother Ruby Wilson operated for many years.
The recovery and restoration of this portrait has uncovered a whole chapter of local history, not just for the City of Sanford, but for Central Florida as a whole. Timothy and Mother Ruby Wilson were pillars of their community and the impacts that they made are still seen and felt throughout Sanford today. From the churches she founded to the Good Samaritan Home and Rest Haven Kindergarten, Mother Ruby Wilson touched the lives of everyone that she encountered. Now the portrait will be proudly displayed as a tribute to the people that it reflects, in places where the community can enjoy its beauty and reminisce on the memories that it evokes upon viewing it.