A partial band scholarship helped set the educational foundation for a military career that spanned the globe and for college opportunities at high level universities. When Wilton Sanders left North Carrollton and headed for Moorhead in 1940 to attend what was then Sunflower Junior College, he had a clarinet in hand and dreams of flying.
Majoring in chemical engineering, Sanders enjoyed his time at Moorhead as part of the band and orchestra as well as taking part in the civilian pilot training. His Sunflower Junior College grounding set him on a course that would take him to Mississippi State University, the U.S. Naval Academy and into the armed forces, where he would serve honorably for many decades.
“I was over there from ’40 to ’42, and I was in chemical engineering for one year but my dear prof said, ‘You may make a math student but I’m not so sure about chemistry,’” Sanders recalled. “I got into the civilian pilot program my sophomore year. That’s what I was really interested in.”
With a student deferment in hand to finish college, Sanders headed to Starkville but his sights were set on Air Force or Navy aviation. After a year at Mississippi State, he got an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated in 1946 (actual Class of 1947).
“It was a shortened course because of the war (World War II),” he said. “Then I married the love of my life from Black Hawk. She had gone to the W (Mississippi University for Women) and had taught at Isola for a year. She came to Washington, and we got married. We had been dating since 1938.”
His first assignment was in San Diego on a Navy destroyer ship. Everyone had to work two years minimum before they could get into flight training school. After putting in three years, Sanders went through flight training.
“I got my wings on Aug. 16, 1950,” he said. “Then went to a jet transitioning unit in Pensacola. Then I went to Norfolk, Virginia, where they were flying corsairs but not jets. By that time, I was married with two kids.”
From there, he was assigned to the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps Unit at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, for three years. He then moved to Japan in 1956 and worked in intelligence. He and his wife had twins in 1957.
“Then I came back to another fighter squadron based in Northern California for two years,” he said.
The life of a Naval pilot seemed to “always be up in the air,” and Sanders was tapped with “another strange assignment” where he went to the Naval Academy to “initiate a course in operations research. I guess that math finally came back that prof Harris mentioned to me back in 1941.”
Sanders’ duty kept him stateside for the rest of his military career until he retired and moved to Washington, D.C., to work in the Senate Chief of Naval Operations’ office until 1980.
“Somewhere along the way, we picked up our sixth baby — Susan,” Sanders said. “All of our children had gone to public schools all over the states and in Japan. Susan was privileged to go to Carroll Academy for four years. And we’ve been in Black Hawk ever since.”
Sanders is most proud of his marriage to his late wife, Virginia, who passed away in 2015 and of their six children and their education. Their firstborn son, Wilton, attended Johns Hopkins University, has a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for NASA as an astrophysicist. John Sanders was a Naval aviator who attended Duke University. Paul Sanders is a University of Michigan graduate in the School of Natural Resources and works in satellite interpretation work.
“I was in intelligence at the time and told Paul that they were looking for somebody, and you might want to do it. He said, ‘No, I don’t want any military stuff.’ I said, ‘The pay is regular and is also good.’ Well, he took it, and now is with Boeing Aerospace.”
His oldest daughter, Laurie, is a Duke University graduate and now is the executive director of entitlements with the state of Tennessee. Ernie Sanders is a certified public accountant with a degree from the University of Virginia. Now retired, he works as a graphic designer. The youngest child, Susan, is a magna cum laude graduate of Millsaps College and has a master’s degree in audiology from Vanderbilt.
“With that educational background, Virginia and I were very pleased,” he said.
Sanders is sponsoring a scholarship at Mississippi Delta Community College, and his daughter, Laurie, came down from Nashville to be part of the annual ceremony. “The Hayden Turner-Lee Endowed Scholarship at MDCC was established in honor of her son that was lost at an early age,” Sanders said.
When asked how MDCC helped prepare him for life and what advice he would pass onto incoming students, Sanders noted that “the first two years of college were the most fun I’ve ever had before or since. I’ve always told mine that the first thing is to get a good education and then try to do what you want to do. It doesn’t become work until you’d rather do something else.”
The 97-year-old Sanders is looking forward to seeing one more grandchild graduate from high school and obtain his Eagle Scout. Sanders has nine grandkids and two great-grandchildren.
“I’m most proud of my wife and after that my kids,” he said. “They are all doing more than we ever did. We had a good life and enjoyed it very much.”
Sanders still has his 1923 wooden clarinet that helped begin his lifelong journey, taking the first steps at Sunflower Junior College on a partial scholarship that has paid dividends for more than eight decades and counting.