The Rev. Wilburn S. Watson, whose career as pastor of Olivet Baptist Church spanned nearly 50 years, died Feb. 24 of complications from diabetes at Northwest Hospital Center. He was 80.
Mr. Watson was born and raised in Baltimore and graduated in 1943 from Douglass High School. He earned his divinity degree from Morris College in Sumter, S.C.
Mr. Watson was 17 when he began preaching. A self-taught pianist, he began incorporating piano and singing into his sermons at Canaan Baptist Church in Baltimore.
He also performed with two gospel groups, the Golden Gates and the Canaan Chorus.
Before being named pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in 1962, Mr. Watson worked as a tailor and had owned a grocery and candy store.
In 1964, Mr. Watson oversaw the church's move from its original location on Riggs Avenue, where it had been founded in 1922, to its present Edmondson Avenue home in Edmondson Village.
"As the spiritual leader of Olivet, his first love was the Sunday school and the young people. He worked with them diligently and also organized new programs, promoted church growth, interacted and shared with other churches," said Bertha Haywood, a church member since 1949.
"He became an excellent Bible student, teacher, preacher, leader, servant and shepherd," she said. "He will long be remembered for beginning each sermon with a song and using his melodious voice to prepare worshipers to receive the word of God. It didn't stop there, because the song was immediately followed by a soul-stirring, uplifting message from the Lord."
Mrs. Haywood said Mr. Watson brought a "lot of the old-time country preacher traits to his ministry."
The Rev. Alfred Boddie has been associate pastor at the church since 1995.
"He was foremost a teacher and often said, 'Preaching is teaching. You have to teach them something that they didn't know,' " Mr. Boddie said. "Explaining and expounding on the Holy Scriptures is what he did."
"He was well-known throughout the city and the state for allowing beginning ministers to develop their preaching styles in his pulpit, and he also mentored them as they took on new pastoral assignments," Mrs. Haywood said.
The Rev. Russell E. Groves, who has been pastor of Canaan Baptist Church for the past 22 years and is currently overseeing Olivet Baptist Church, was trained as a deacon and minister by Mr. Watson.
"I've never met anyone that comes up to the standards of who he was. He didn't take his pastorate as a job. He took it as being a servant," said Mr. Groves, who added that he admired his fellow pastor's deftness at "dissecting the Scriptures. He was the most knowledgeable man I've ever known in this regard."
Mr. Watson also lectured at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park, and the Baltimore Bible College.
In addition to his regular pastoral duties, Mr. Watson established the Gospel Chorus, now called the Olivet Ensemble.
When church repairs were needed, it wasn't uncommon to see Mr. Watson swinging a hammer, sawing wood or painting, church members said.
He also enjoyed visiting the homes of his parishioners.
"Since he loved to eat, he seldom turned down any invitation for Sunday dinner or a weekday lunch," Mrs. Haywood said. "Food was not the only thing on his mind at these gatherings. He would present new ideas or seek solutions to issues that involved the church."
Church members recalled Mr. Watson's ability to listen and offer wise counsel to those who sought his help.
He was also known for his ready "deep, hearty laugh at any activity he was a part of and encouraged others to be joyful, too," Mrs. Haywood said.
Services were held at his church Sunday.
Surviving are his wife of 19 years, the former Gloria "Glo" Randolph Fields; two sons, Kevin Mitchell of Virginia and William "Sputty" Studivant of Fayetteville, N.C.; four stepsons, Melvin Fields, Troy Fields, Terry Fields and Taras Fields, all of Baltimore; a sister, Virgie Tillman of Baltimore; and two grandsons. An earlier marriage to Maretta Logan ended in divorce.