John H. Wilbanks, 75, car dealership owner, baseball teams sponsor

April 23, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John H. Wilbanks, a Baltimore car impresario who popularized the slogan "The Walking Man's Friend," died Tuesday from complications of an infection at Stella Maris Hospice. He was 75 and lived in Parkville.

For nearly 50 years, from a crowded office at Johnny's Auto Sales in the 4800 block of Harford Road, Mr. Wilbanks sold new and used cars. He estimated he had sold more than 100,000 cars.

"He had the gift of gab," said his wife of 55 years, the former Katherine Harvey, who met her future husband at a Baltimore filling station. "He could sell Eskimos ice cubes."

Mr. Wilbanks favored a well-worn gray Stetson in the winter and a straw Panama worn way back on the head in the summer. He was gifted with a booming voice and infectious personality. To first-time buyers, he was a friendly, avuncular presence who seemed to have their interests at heart.

In his command-post office where the phone rang endlessly, the walls were covered with plaques that spelled out his business philosophy:

"If you can't get it here, it ain't worth having."

"The quickest way to get back on your feet is to miss a few car payments."

"You are cordially invited to the theological place of eternal punishment."

"I think we've made a good living because we've been honest," he told the Sun Magazine in 1983.

"We don't do nothing special. But whatever we tell 'em we're going to do, we do. That's what we tell our salesmen -- don't lie to 'em, tell 'em the truth," he said.

Those who entered Johnny's Auto Sales usually left behind the wheel of a car.

He had a fixed price and refused to dicker. Another hallmark of a Johnny's deal was a 30-day or 1,000-mile warranty.

"I know a lot of dealers who argue with people. Not me! If something's wrong with it, take it back and get it fixed," he said in the interview.

"I did business with him years ago when I didn't have a nickel and I was just one of millions that John treated with kindness," Chuck Thompson, Hall of Fame baseball announcer, said yesterday.

Ray Truss, a longtime friend and customer who lives in Dundalk, said, "He really enjoyed being around people and was a very sincere individual."

He said Mr. Wilbanks was pained when he had to repossess an automobile.

"He did it very reluctantly, and if he had to do it, he felt that the customer didn't keep up their end of the bargain. He used to say, `If you can't make the payments, call me and we'll work something out.' It was that kind of personal service that kept people coming back," Mr. Truss said.

Mr. Wilbanks was just as enthusiastic about sports as he was about selling cars. He counted many Orioles as customers.

His Johnny's Used Cars amateur baseball teams were regular Baltimore pennant winners and featured such alumni as Hall-of-Famers Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline.

Mr. Wilbanks, who began sponsoring teams in 1945, also sponsored a men's and women's softball team and duckpin bowling team.

Born and raised on a farm in Chatsworth, Ga., where he graduated from high school, he was rejected for service during World War II because of high blood pressure. He headed to Baltimore and went to work in Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Key Highway shipyard.

In 1945, he took a job as a brakeman with Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. One day, the train jerked, and he fell from the top of a boxcar onto the tracks. The train rolled over him, severing his legs.

Determined to live a normal life, he rigged his car so he could drive and amazed his doctors with his speedy recovery.

After working in gas stations, he opened a used-car lot on East Fayette Street in 1945 and moved to Harford Road in the early 1950s. He retired in 1996.

A religious man, he believed his accident was God's way of slowing him down. "You know, I thought I wanted all the girls in town! That was my only bad habit -- I never did drink, cuss or smoke," he told the Sun Magazine.

He was a member of Perry Hall United Methodist Church, 9515 Belair Road, where services will be held at 9: 30 a.m. tomorrow.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, John M. Wilbanks of Parkville; three daughters, Kathy Addams of Perry Hall, Karen Rider of Parkville and Karla Schaefer of White Marsh; a brother, George Wilbanks of Baltimore; eight grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter.

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