If you’ve ever been to Mercy Hospital, St. Francis Borgia or the Knights of Columbus Hall and turned a light on, you can thank Wilbert Lee Witthaus. “Wimpy,” as he’s affectionately known, has helped wire thousands of lights around Washington and beyond.
The gleaming buildings he’s help light up contrast sharply with the rural environment where Wimpy grew up. Witthaus was born on April 4, 1930, in Smith Creek in Warren County. His mother, Elda, had six children — three sons and three daughters.
During the 1930s, his father, Chris, worked as a blacksmith, horse-shoer, and in the sawmills. Wimpy says his family had moved about 27 times when he turned 16 years old.
“(Chris) did a variety of things ... He did anything to find work during the Depression time,” Witthaus said. “It was pretty rough.”
Wimpy attended multiple grade schools and completed two years of high school in Warrenton.
Outside of school, he enjoyed tramping around the woods.
“We did a lot of rabbit and squirrel hunting ... We didn’t do a lot of fishing because we couldn’t catch anything,” Witthaus said. “(We were) bad fishermen.”
Stray basset hounds, beagles, curs assisted Wimpy and his brothers when they hunted. The family didn’t have enough money to raise dogs.
“We were very poor, but we had a lot of fun,” Witthaus said.
The older Wimpy became, the more he worked. Most summers, farmers hired Witthaus as extra help to bale hay.
Wimpy worked in a factory during the winters in Wright City. He didn’t like the work, though. He felt too cooped up and preferred the country life.
In 1951, the free-spirited Wimpy received a notice that turned his life around: he’d been drafted.
The young 21-year-old hopped on a bus from Warrenton to St. Louis where he completed a battery of tests before being sent to Camp Gordon, Ga. for eight weeks of basic training.
He was sent to the radio communications school for five months. The expertise he learned there helped him later as an electrician.
Before he was shipped to Korea, Wimpy recalls finding a Bulova watch with a blue crystal at a camp in Seattle while picking up trash. He has kept the watch since.
“God knows how long it had been there,” Witthaus said. “It was the first watch I ever had.”
In Korea, Witthaus worked in a warehouse, handling radio communications equipment.
Back home on leave in 1952, he met his wife Geneva. The two exchanged letters and were quickly married in 1954 at St. Francis Borgia Church.
Wimpy’s Army expertise helped him land his first job as a TV and radio antenna installer.
“That was the heyday of television,” Witthaus said.
After three years with that work, Wimpy grabbed a union card and headed over to Eckelkamp Electric. He was hired in February 1957. Two months later, his first child, Dan, was born in April.
Eckelkamp Electric had Wimpy travel all over to different job sites. He helped wire the Hearnes Center at MU, buildings in Rolla, and the Potosi hospital among many other buildings.
“I was lucky to work there ... It was a variety of jobs that we had. It was really kind of interesting,” Witthaus said.
In 1959, Wimpy literally built most of his house off Clay and West Ninth Street. Naturally, he wired his own house, but he also put up the plaster and plumbing.
Building part of his home also sparked his interest in woodworking. Wimpy tinkered in his garden, too, growing fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
On family outings, Wimpy took his kids water skiing on the Missouri River where they enjoyed roasting hot dogs on sandbars for lunch.
“Hopefully you had enough money to buy gas to keep the boat running,” Witthaus joked.
He was also actively involved with the Boy Scouts for his boys.
Witthaus sent all of his kids to college, the first generation to do so in his family.
After his wife, Geneva, died in 1982, Wimpy remarried in 1986. Wimpy and Dorothy have been happily married since.
Wimpy retired in 1992 after serving 35 years with Eckelkamp Electric. He’s spent the last 20 years of his life tinkering in his workshop and garden, and watching plenty of Cardinals baseball.