Pittsfield's quiet gift: Remembering Wilbert N. Stockton Sr.

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PITTSFIELD — Wilbert N. Stockton Sr. will be remembered on Sunday, not only as a patriarch for his extensive family, but as a pioneer for the city and patron saint for Pittsfield's West Side. He died on Tuesday, surrounded by family.

Being sworn in as the city's first African American city councilor in 1977 may be a milestone in his 94 years of life, but his legacy of pursuing equity and dignity in the quality of life on behalf of everyone he knew may be his most enduring accomplishment.

When asked what it was like to become the first African American person elected to the Pittsfield City Council, Stockton's family acknowledged the significance of this milestone and that people recognized the importance, but said Stockton "never saw it that way. He always looked at that as a person and not their color," his son, Chauncey Stockton, said.

His daughter, Raya Stockton, said his mission and purpose in life was supporting and helping his family while also serving the community. "He was helping people," she said. "Daddy was all about helping people."

Finding a new city to call home

While his career and family was established in the Berkshires, Wilbert N. Stockton Sr. first called North Carolina his home. Born on June 3, 1923, he was raised in the tobacco-growing city of Reidsville, where he graduated from high school in 1939. He first came to Pittsfield in 1940, where he had an uncle who ran an auto detailing shop. He traveled back to Greensboro, N.C., where he attended Greensboro Agricultural and Technical Academy for two years, and, during that time, married the love of his life, Lois Denny Stockton, on Feb. 4, 1941. Shortly thereafter, when the newlyweds were deciding where to begin their family, Pittsfield came back to Wilbert's mind.

Their residence, a white, two-story house at 17 Dewey Ave., became their lifelong homestead. The house served as a home for their seven children, and later, Stockton's campaign headquarters, as he would run for and serve seven terms with the city council.

"Ward 6 was his life," Raya Stockton said.

Longevity seemed to be a hallmark throughout Stockton's life.

A family man first, he became a handyman second, working in his uncle's auto detailing shop. Within a year's time, he landed a job working as a machinist in what was last known as the Jones Division of the former Beloit Corp. in Dalton. He worked there for nearly 44 years.

Even as a young man, Stockton equally devoted himself to church and community service, with his political aspirations developing in his later years.

While he was often seen outside of the factory sporting a suit, tie and a hat fashionable to the times, Stockton was never afraid to roll up his sleeves and help people to be successful.

He was active in the Boys Club in every way — as a night supervisor for activities, as director of the club's Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, as a leader on its various steering committees and corporation group.

Stockton served as a lifelong member of the Second Congregational Church, which will return the service by honoring him Sunday with his final celebration of life. By age 46, he also earned the distinction of Shriner, the highest level in the St. John's of Free and Accepted Masons, installed through the Suez Temple 114 in Springfield.

Despite all of the work he did outside of the house, his daughter Raya, the youngest of her siblings, recalled, "family time was family time," a value she said her father and mother upheld equally. The couple made sure their children got good educations and were encouraged to get involved in the community. And even when their children strayed or rebelled, as adolescents do, all was forgiven when regrouped together for family vacations to North Carolina and joyous Christmas celebrations described by Chauncey as "the thing of legends."

It was the content of Stockton's character, from his good humor to his tireless dedication, that caught the attention of Evan S. Dobelle, a rising politician who served as Pittsfield's mayor in the mid-1970s.

"He was a good man," Dobelle told The Eagle this week. "I was a mayor who actively was looking to diversify by gender and ethnicity appointments to positions where everyone looked alike. He was on many lists as a solid citizen of integrity."

Stockton was elected over two other nominees in 1972 to serve as chairman of the newly formed Project Area Committee for West Side Rehabilitation. In 1974, he was named by Dobelle to the city's salary committee and Pittsfield Redevelopment Authority, the latter which also focused on improving the West Side neighborhoods.

In 1976, when Dobelle left his post as mayor to work as chief of protocol for then President Jimmy Carter, then Ward 6 city councilor, Paul E. Brindle III, became elected to take Dobelle's place.

The chance to have a seat at the table on the board which governed his beloved Ward 6, spurred Stockton to action.

In an Eagle article dated Feb. 22, 1977, announcing his campaign, Stockton said, "I'm running because of my continuous concern for Ward 6 and the community."

He added, "It's my belief that anyone running for such a position should have shown concern over the years by his willingness to work in any capacity."

Stockton stayed afloat during a primary ballot of four candidates, and ultimately faced off against Raymon S. Webster III, then owner of the former Berkshire Funeral Home. In the primary, out of 656 votes cast, Stockton earned 270, while his opponent received 209.

Stockton celebrated succeeding his first hurdle at home, with family members and supporters. He told The Eagle, "I'm just beaming ... I'm tired and my feet hurt, but somehow I don't feel much pain," referring to the amount of walking he did to rally his Ward 6 neighbors.

Webster even admitted that "Stockton will be a tough guy to beat."

Little did they know that in that May special election it would all come down to a single vote.

Hotly contested by Webster at first, who demanded a recount, Webster later conceded, and even attended Stockton's swearing-in ceremony on May 18, 1977. The final tally was a vote of 384-383 in Stockton's favor.

"You've earned the name of Landslide Willie," quipped then Councilman Peter G. Arlos.

Stockton, with his wife and family by his side, called the event "one of the greatest moments in my life."

Though it was his first time running for such a city office, Dobelle said he had no less confidence in Stockton's capacity to lead his ward.

"The memory I have of Will is he listened carefully, spoke thoughtfully, and measured his public service by trying to find serious solutions for his city and not just political posturing," he said.

Stockton, in his seven terms, took on all issues great and small — fighting for the lights to stay on and for the city to repair and regulate traffic on roadways, fighting for the West Side's right to clean and safe drinking water during years where the aging system was prone to collecting bacteria.

To "make sure Ward 6 gets its fair share," became a constant refrain in Stockton's re-election campaigns.

One of his greatest battles went all the way to the state in the 1980s, when advocates were proposing a $90 million, four-lane bypass for Route 7, which would cut straight through the heart of Ward 6. He vocally opposed and fought the likes of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, and even Gov. Michael Dukakis and his administration.

"Any citizen of Pittsfield who would vote to destroy 100 homes, 20 businesses, and a fire station and affect three public schools, please do a little soul-searching," Stockton once told The Eagle, referring to the project's estimated toll on the community.

The mammoth roadway never came to pass.

But over time, the needs of Ward 6 changed, as did the dynamics of Stockton's life.

He was nearly 70 when he completed his seventh term in 1992, and was ousted for an eighth. At that point, he was also practically blind.

But like most issues in life, he never took it personally. Rather, he took the opportunity to return his focus to family and neighbors. He learned their voices, memorized the curves of the sidewalks he once marched on, and relished in every conversation he had by giving the speaker his full attention.

"He listened more than he talked," explained his son, Chauncey. "When all was said and done, he'd come back ... and his sense of humor was off the chart."

It's those memories, those stories, of practical jokes, Wilbert's whip-smart one-liners and the proud moments he shared with them, that his loved ones are re-living this week.

"There's grief. But there's smiles and laughter. There's no better gift than that," said Chauncey. Stockton taught his children that life is full of times of trouble and times of joy, but strength can always get you through, and a family can be strong in all those times.

Over the winter, Stockton became sick with congestive heart failure, and struggled on and off into the spring and summer.

"It will be all right," was the refrain he used to comfort family members in times of trouble. It's also the mantra his wife, Lois, had printed on ballpoint pens for the family as Stockton was coming to the end. And now it is the refrain his children repeat to each other to get through the early days of grief.


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