Rufus H. Wilson, 80, Carter's deputy VA administrator


Rufus H. Wilson, the deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter who stayed on as acting director during the opening months of the Reagan administration, died of septic shock from a perforated colon Tuesday at Howard County General Hospital. The longtime Columbia resident was 80.

In his 34 years with the agency, he wielded his knowledge and network of legislative contacts to navigate Washington's bureaucracy, while always maintaining a sense of humor, said former Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who headed the VA under President Carter.

"He had this rock-ribbed integrity," Senator Cleland said in a telephone interview yesterday. "If a hospital director got out of line, wasn't doing his job, Rufus Wilson was the first to know about it."

As a Marine Corps corporal during World War II, Mr. Wilson was wounded in action on Saipan in 1944, earning a Purple Heart. Despite sustaining spinal injuries that could have rendered him a quadriplegic, Mr. Wilson underwent extensive rehabilitation before being released with partial paralysis in his legs and right arm.

"People told him he would not get out of bed again when he was 18 years old," said Mr. Wilson's son, Douglas H. Wilson of Ellicott City. "The veterans groups got him back to having a life, so he turned around and actually put his life back into doing service for them."

After holding high-ranking positions with the VA during the Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford presidencies, Mr. Wilson - a lifelong Republican - submitted his resignation notice soon after President Carter's inauguration in 1977. It wasn't accepted.

Senator Cleland, then a 34-year-old VA administrator, asked Mr. Wilson to serve as his deputy to temper Senator Cleland's "young tiger, militant Vietnam vet" status with pragmatism and institutional memory. "When I made Rufus Wilson the No. 2, the entire agency breathed a collective sigh of relief," Senator Cleland said. "They didn't know me, but they trusted Rufus."

Working together, Senator Cleland said, they revamped the vocational rehabilitation program for disabled veterans and launched a counseling program in 1980 to assist veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"He was a mentor, a person who you would call just to be cheered up," said John Fales, president of the Blinded American Veterans Foundation. "He could take the most serious subject, life-and-death situations, and with his wry sense of humor, somehow leave you smiling."

After President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, Mr. Wilson served as acting administrator of the VA for several months before becoming Republican counsel and staff director for the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Mr. Wilson worked with lawmakers from both parties until he retired in 1989. "He wasn't a neo-con," Mr. Fales said. "There was no label for Rufus, except veterans advocate, with an unabashed love of veterans and love of country."

Born in Sweetwater, Tenn., and raised in Detroit, Mr. Wilson joined the Marines shortly after graduating from high school. After completing military service, he attended Wayne State University in Detroit before joining the fledgling American Veterans of World War II (AMVETS) in 1946, becoming national commander of the organization in 1954.

While living at a Washington, D.C., boarding house, he met Florence Mieczkowski of Toledo, Ohio, whom he married in 1949. She died in 1985.

Mr. Wilson joined the VA in 1955, working as field service director and congressional liaison service director. Beginning in 1958, he spent 10 years managing VA regional offices in St. Petersburg, Fla., Lincoln, Neb., and Baltimore. He returned to Washington to serve as the VA's chief benefits director and was promoted to associate deputy administrator in 1970. He became the first director of the VA's National Cemetery Administration in 1974 and later served again as chief benefits director.

He belonged to or held honorary memberships in numerous veterans organizations.

His funeral service will be held at 3 p.m. Aug. 29 at Arlington National Cemetery.

In addition to his son, survivors include another son, Michael T. Wilson of Crofton; a daughter, Laureen W. Evans of Herndon, Va.; a sister, Celena W. Clinesmith of Northville, Mich.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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