Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Wilton Turner Sanders Jr. passed away peacefully Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, at his home in Black Hawk. He was 98. Services celebrating Cmdr. Sanders’ life will be held later, when all might safely, and lovingly, gather.

Cmdr. Sanders was born on Dec. 21, 1922, to Wilton Turner Sanders Sr. and Annie Laurie Duke Sanders in North Carrollton. He graduated at the top of his class at J.Z. George High School. With an innate desire to fly at an early age, he honed his gift in civilian pilot training at Sunflower Junior College in Moorhead (now Mississippi Delta Community College) and played clarinet in the school band there and at Mississippi State before receiving an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. Graduating from the Naval Academy Class of ’47 (with an accelerated graduation in 1946 due to the war), he soon earned his wings as a naval aviator, flying single-engine Corsair fighters.

While aviation launched his imagination into the skies, his heart belonged on the ground to the great love of his life, his childhood sweetheart, Virginia Jones of Black Hawk. They married soon after his Naval Academy graduation at the Black Hawk Methodist Church in 1946. For nearly seven decades, they shared a deep and boundless love that resulted in six children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Cmdr. Sanders’ 26-year Navy career took him and his family to stations in California, Florida, Tennessee, Japan, Maryland and Virginia. In addition to serving in fighter squadrons, his career also included assignments in military intelligence, ROTC at Vanderbilt University and teaching operations research at the Naval Academy. Following retirement from the Navy, Cmdr. Sanders was an operations analyst with Ketron Inc. in Arlington, Virginia. After a career at sea and around the world, they returned to Carroll County in 1980, building the house they would call the Homestead, where the growing Sanders family gathered over and over again. Long matches of croquet in the front yard, competitive cousin card games and dinners requiring up to four tables to hold all the food, family, and guests were signature Homestead events for nearly 40 years.

Cmdr. Sanders was a true renaissance man. He read voraciously, from spy novels and Mississippi authors to presidential histories and biographies, and he relished his visits to Turnrow Book Co. He roared at newspaper cartoons, especially “Calvin & Hobbes,” and his classic jazz vinyl collection was rivaled only by his recordings of Chet Atkins, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris and Broadway musicals. He loved his 1961 Corvette, an extravagance for the young Navy officer with a growing family but an expression of his appreciation for finer things. His house was filled with intricate, three-dimensional puzzle sculptures as well as brain teasers to challenge and amuse his grandchildren. He was a prolific letter writer, which included respectful correspondence to authors to correct inaccurate references, and he encouraged the lost art with graduation gifts of classic pen sets. A Sophia Loren film noir of the 1950s could capture his attention for an afternoon, but he was equally at home with the Egg Bowl or the college basketball teams of his children’s many alma maters.

A devout United Methodist, he believed himself called to a life of compassion, justice, worship and devotion. He was a brother at the Mississippi State University chapter of Kappa Sigma Fraternity and a Scottish Rite 33rd Degree Master Mason of Carrollton Lodge No. 36 for over 75 years. He was generous and faithful in his giving to church and philanthropy to support those seeking higher education. In his later years, he gave and gave until, finally, his great heart gave out. All who loved were welcome in his world. Ours is the poorer for his passing.

Predeceased by his parents and his wife, Virginia Jones Sanders, Cmdr. Sanders is survived by his children, Wilton T. Sanders III (Sue Milch) of Madison, Wisconsin, retired U.S. Navy Capt. John R. Sanders (Judy) of Crozet, Virginia, Paul A. Sanders (Rose Ann Sullivan) of Reston, Virginia, Laurie S. Lee (Tom) of Nashville, Tennessee, Ernest D. Sanders II (Christine) of Falls Church, Virginia, and Susan S. Byrd (Pat) of Brandon; his nine grandchildren, John R. Sanders Jr. of Brooklyn, New York, James R. Sanders (Angela Adams) of Kailua, Hawaii, Annie Laurie Sanders (Shy Lev-Ari) of Denver, Robert W. Sanders and Katherine G. Sanders of Eugene, Oregon, Paul H. Sanders of Springfield, Virginia, Virginia C. Lee of Nashville and Andrew P. Byrd and Matthew C. Byrd of Brandon; and two great-grandchildren, Dylan J. Sanders and Jacob S. Lev-Ari. We are grateful for the love and support of family and friends, including nieces Anne Turnage (Jeff) and Edee Temple (Ed) and nephew Edward Sanders (Krista); for the special care provided to him by Connie Givens and Alfreda Smith; and for James Funderburk, Marion Boggs and their Black Hawk church community, who made it possible for Cmdr. Sanders and his wife to live out their full days at home.

Memorials may be made to Black Hawk United Methodist Church, 8789 County Road 23, Coila, MS 38923; the Hayden Turner Lee Endowed Scholarship at MDCC Foundation, P.O. Box 710, Moorhead, MS 38761; or the charity of your choice. Wilson & Knight Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements. An online guestbook may be signed at www.wilsonknightfune@bellsouth.net.

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