From the moment he became part of the Free Times family, we knew that Wilbert Fields was something special. At the time, our offices were in a small office park miles outside the city center on North Main Street at I-20, across from the Pepsi bottling plant. The year was 2005, long before the economy crashed, and Free Times was looking to expand — hiring, for the first time, a third graphic designer.
Wilbert wasn’t the most likely candidate for the position. He was shy to the point of social awkwardness. Though he’d done some freelance print work, his most recent job had been as master control operator at WBHQ, a TV station in Elgin.
But he had talent — lots of it. And he was unfailingly sweet, determined and polite. And so, Free Times offered Wilbert a job, and from that point on Wilbert threw himself wholeheartedly into his position here. In time, he became the second-longest-serving designer in the 26-year history of Free Times.
“Wilbert T. Fields,” he’d introduce himself during his first few days on the job. The “T” seemed very important to him; no one really knew why. It was just one of Wilbert’s quirks. In time, we all came to know and love Wilbert’s quirks and habits.
He was nervous in those first few days and weeks on the job, eager to prove that he’d been the right choice. But his work spoke for itself; we never once doubted having hired him.
Wilbert spent long, long hours at the office — not so much because he was overburdened with designing ads, but because it was where he wanted to be. He constantly streamed sports shows on his computer. He cackled loudly at jokes only he was privy to. He peppered co-workers with questions — about hit songs from the ‘80s, board games from childhood, favorite (and worst) television shows, last night’s dinner, high-school memories, Coke vs. Pepsi. He voraciously consumed media news, occasionally serving up tidbits at staff meetings, giving his analysis on what it meant when a TV station changed ownership or a radio station changed formats or a newspaper filed for bankruptcy. At Friday morning staff meetings, he’d always give a shout out to his beloved Seattle Seahawks before a big game. (He’d gone to college at Washington State University.)
Sometimes his media consumption upset him. He would see stories of murder, brutality, children shooting each other. He couldn’t understand how people could do these things — and he couldn’t get them out of his mind. Where most people learn to compartmentalize the tragedy they see around them every day — especially people who work in the news business — Wilbert couldn’t do that. They weren’t just stories that would end, to be followed by another story that might have a better ending; they stuck with him.
Wilbert was passionate about his work, and about the people he worked with. As an ad designer, it was his job to work with sales staffers on making ads that their clients would be happy with. Usually, they were — clients would marvel at how beautiful his ads were, some of them insisting that only Wilbert could design their ads. But anyone in the media business knows that pleasing clients can be tricky, and Wilbert was constantly engaged in a subtle tug of war with the sales staffers he worked with, quietly but firmly pushing back to defend his designs from the incessant requests of clients to change a color, move a logo or add so much text to an ad that it would become unreadable.
Sales representatives who worked with Wilbert were perhaps the closest to him. Ask what they thought of him, and they say things like: “I can’t express how much I will miss Wilbert ... I’ll never forget our long talks and his big laugh”; “What a wonderful person ... I’ll never forget him”; and, “I love him and will miss him so much ... I am devastated that I will not see him on Monday.”
Wilbert tried his hand at editorial design, too. He had a knack for special theme issues, creating bold, arresting designs that could catch the eye from far away. He designed many of our Best Of Columbia covers. Last week’s Annual Manual cover was one of Wilbert’s, too.
His real editorial specialty, though, was our Side Line football publication — the one place where he could put his passion for sports and his passion for design together in the same place. For years, Wilbert did all the cover design and most of the internal layout for that publication. For some of those years, that meant working all afternoon on a Sunday.
Wilbert never complained; he probably would have been in the office anyway.
As passionate as Wilbert was about work, he loved his family, too. After his father died a number of years ago, he became even closer to his mother, often calling her from the office to check in with her or reassure her about one thing or another. It could be a complicated relationship at times, not one most of his co-workers knew much about other than from one side of a phone conversation. But at the end of the day there could be no doubt that he absolutely adored her — she would visit him for weeks at a time, and he loved taking her shopping — and that she was very proud of his accomplishments, including his Addy award.
Last Friday afternoon, Wilbert left work early. He’d been feeling bad; it seemed he’d caught the flu that had hit several staff members. On his way home, he collapsed at the wheel of his car. He died shortly thereafter from cardiac arrest.
Most of the employees at Free Times can’t remember a Free Times before Wilbert, nor can they imagine a Free Times without him. Free Times has never had another member of its family like Wilbert, and we most certainly never will again.
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