David S. Wilson, owner of transmission repair business and competitive athlete who raised money for ALS research, dies

David S. Wilson completed his first marathon in 2010 at the Baltimore Marathon.

David S. Wilson, owner of Southern Automatic Transmission Service who overcame a severe foot injury to became a competitive runner and triathlete and in doing so raised thousands of dollars for ALS research, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, May 6 at his Frederick home. The former Woodbine resident was 60.

“When Dave committed to something, he was focused, and did not want to lose,” said Mike Creath, a friend of nearly 15 years. “He was intense and brought an intensity to whatever he did.”


David Spence Wilson, son of Spencer A. Wilson, founder of Southern Automatic Transmission Service, and Joanne Schwink Wilson, a homemaker and a Home Depot cashier, was born in Baltimore and raised in Woodlawn.

Mr. Wilson was a 1979 graduate of Woodlawn High School where he had excelled in vocational automotive mechanics, and after leaving high school, joined his father at Southern Automatic Transmission, a business he had established in the 1960s on Warwick Avenue in West Baltimore.


While he enjoyed his career as a professional mechanic, Mr. Wilson was also interested in high-performance cars and competed in local and regional races in his 1972 maroon Chevy Vega. His passion for high-performance cars reached its pinnacle in 2013 when he purchased a 662-horsepower Ford Shelby Mustang Cobra, which became the prized centerpiece of his collection.

“We raced cars together and I first met him 40 years ago at a racetrack,” Ted Leatherwood said. “He was such a great guy, and if you ever needed help, Dave would go above and beyond. There are not enough words to say about him.”

Mr. Wilson was also an athlete and an avid runner.

In 2007, he became a member of the inaugural team that ran the Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Packard Center Fiesta 5K for ALS research. He ran the race in memory of a Woodlawn High friend, Tim McGhee, who had been an ALS patient at the Packard Center, and eventually died from the disease.

Mr. Wilson was part of the team whose name was the “Flappy Floundos,” which reflected Mr. McGhee’s love of offbeat sounding names. He finished “his first-ever 5K the way he started it — by walking,” Baltimore Style magazine reported in a 2018 profile.

He made a vow that day that the next time he’d participate in the 5K, he’d run its entirety, and immediately began training to meet his goal, which he met the following year.

He graduated from 5Ks to a 10K and then a half-marathon in 2009. He completed his first marathon in 2010, the Baltimore Marathon, but a year later, his running career was nearly ended when he almost lost his foot to a serious lawn mower accident.

“While recovering from the run-in with his lawn mower, he fed his running fix with cycling, tackling his first century events — 100 miles on a bike — in 2012,” according to the magazine interview.


Mr. Wilson also started swimming to keep in shape while his foot healed, and he prepared for his first triathlon in 2013.

In April 2016, he completed the American Odyssey Relay Race, a 200-miler, and in September of that year, the SavageMan Triathlon.

In September 2016, Mr. Wilson, who had raised thousands of dollars for ALS research, was himself diagnosed with the disease, but he refused to let it interfere with his love of running and athletic competition. He completed the Baltimore Marathon the next month and the New York City Marathon in November.

“When I would finish one race, my question was always, ‘What’s next?’” he told the magazine. “I wanted a bigger, harder, more enduring challenge.”

In October 2017, Mr. Wilson did three back-to-back weekend competitions when he completed the full-distance IRONMAN Triathlon Maryland, then cycled in the Sea Gull Century 100-mile bike ride from Salisbury to Assateague, and finally the Marine Corps Marathon.

Eventually, ALS began to affect his running.


“It’s a little frustrating knowing the progression of my disease,” he explained in the magazine interview. “My right arm and left hand are starting to weaken, and since January, I can feel something in my leg.”

When he was no longer able to close his right hand into a fist when he was about to start a run, a sister, Lynn Wilson, of Winchester, Virginia, an accomplished businesswoman and seamstress, created a Velcro glove that allowed him to do so.

He ran his 12th and final Fiesta 5K in October 2018.

“He barely made it to the end,” Ms. Wilson said.

When he received his ALS diagnosis, he closed his transmission business.

“This freed my days to do more of the things I like and want to do,” he told Baltimore Style. “I know what my destiny is, and right now, this is a gift of time. I am using mine to the fullest. … I want people to look up at me and say, ‘Because of you, I didn’t give up.’”


His children, siblings, family members and friends worked tirelessly to help Mr. Wilson maintain a quality of life. He enjoyed Orioles and Ravens games, liked going out for dinner and took an Alaskan cruise.

Mr. Creath recalled how his friend inspired him to lose weight.

“’I was a fat, middle-age dude and I could tell by his demeanor, he was going to challenge me to get it done. He told me to get a personal trainer,” Mr. Creath said. “And when you’re paying a trainer a $100, you’re going to get out of bed and work out, and because of Dave, I lost 50 pounds. He always made you feel that you could and should try harder.”

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Mr. Wilson was an active member of Lisbon United Methodist Church.

“Dave loved his church and he’d help anyone who was struggling or needed help,” said Mr. Creath, who is also a member of the church. “He was an active churchman who believed in the Lord until the day he died.”

Mr. Leatherwood recalled: “I took Dave to his last automobile race in Gainesville, Florida, in 2019 and we had a blast.”


A week before Mr. Wilson died, he took one final ride in his beloved Cobra, family members said.

“I took him out for his last ride in the Cobra,” Mr. Creath recalled. “And the day of his funeral, I drove it behind the hearse to the cemetery.”

Services were Friday at his church.

In addition to his sister, Mr. Wilson is survived by three sons, Joseph Wilson of Owings Mills, Allen Wilson and Christopher Wilson, both of Eldersburg; his father, Spencer A. Wilson of Sykesville; and two other sisters, Catherine Levy of Mount Washington and Dawn Wilson of Annapolis. His marriage to the former Cheryl Swain ended in divorce.