Wilmot Collins is the Mayor of Helena, Montana, and in 2017, he made headlines as the first black elected official in Montana’s state history. Born in Liberia, West Africa, he and his wife fled the country when a dangerous civil war erupted, killing 250,000 people—including two of his brothers—and displacing over a million more.
After navigating immigration programs for nearly three years and a string of divinely-orchestrated events, Wilmot finally settled in the small town of Helena in 1994, where he raised his two children and has held positions with Intermountain Children’s Home, Alternative Youth Adventures, Montana Department of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs Montana and more. Wilmot has also served in the Army National Guard and Navy Reserves and is active on the boards of United Way, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance.
I sat down with Mayor Collins at the Feathered Pipe Ranch to talk about his early life, growing up in Firestone, Liberia, working on his parents’ chicken farm, riding motorcycles with his brothers and the story of how he met his wife at a bus stop of the local college. We shared many, many tears as he walked me through the unbelievable circumstances that he has survived, a barrage of hurdles, one after the next, that nearly defeated him on his path to freedom and reconnection with his family.
I feel so lucky to have Wilmot Collins in a leadership position in Helena, the town that our Feathered Pipe Ranch community has called home for the last 46 years. Someone who sits down for an interview and says, “Ask me anything. I’m an open book.” Someone who isn’t afraid to show his heart, his emotions, his journey. That’s who I want mediating and making decisions. Because he brings his whole self and that inherently gives people permission to do the same.
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Andy Vantrease (00:00:17):
Welcome to the Dandelion Effect podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living, a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community, and empowerment.
Hi everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the Dandelion Effect podcast. I’m your host, Andy Vantrease, and today I am so honored to bring you a conversation with our city’s mayor, Wilmot Collins. Wilmot Collins is the mayor of Helen Montana, and in 2017, he made history as the first black elected official in Montana State history. Born in Liberia, west Africa. He and his wife fled the country when a dangerous civil war erupted, killing 250,000 people and displacing over a million more after navigating immigration programs for nearly three years. And a string of divinely orchestrated events will not finally settled in the small town of Helena in 1994, where he raised his two children and has held positions with Intermountain Children’s Home Alternative Youth Adventures, Montana, department of Health and Human Services, veterans Affairs, Montana, and so many more. Wilmot has also served in Army National Guard and Navy Reserve, and is active on the boards of the United Way of Lewis and Clark Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance.
A few weeks ago I sat down with Mayor Collins at the Feathered Pipe Ranch to talk about his early life growing up in Firestone, Liberia, working on his parents’ chicken farm riding motorcycles with his brothers, and the story of how he met his wife at a bus stop of the local college. We shared many, many tears as he walked me through the unbelievable circumstances that he has survived a barrage of hurdles, one after the next that nearly defeated him on his path to freedom and reconnection with his family. This is a special edition longer than most of our podcast episodes because I felt like it was really important to share the entirety of this story. To say that this man is inspiring is the understatement of the century. But in all honesty, I find it hard to even put this conversation to words, and at times he does too.
I feel lucky to have Mayor Collins in a leadership position in Helena, the town that our Feathered Pipe Ranch community has called home for the last 46 years. Someone who sits down for an interview and says, ask me anything. I’m an open book. Someone who isn’t afraid to show his heart, his emotions, his journey, and still be in the public eye. That’s who I want mediating and making decisions for our city because he brings his whole self, and that inherently gives people permission to do the same. So, without further ado, please enjoy this conversation, open your heart and help me welcome my new friend, mayor Wilmot Collins.
Kind of where I start with everybody, and it gives us a good jumping off point of your life story and, and really what you resonate with when it comes to like how you came to be who you are today. And that is the idea of your origin. So I like to ask people, like, if you think of your life as this, you know, creation, what’s the origin of Wilmot Collins?
Wilmot Collins (00:04:04):
I was born, raised in, up to my bachelor’s degree in Liberia, west Africa, and my parents left Monrovia and went to Firestone. Firestone. You know, you see the Firestone Tire? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> be a good rich retire. All that material comes from Liberia. We have the world largest forever plantation, and both my parents worked for that company. It’s an American and Japanese company. And, uh, my and dad was a civil engineer, and my mom was superintendent of schools. And we lived, well, we were upper middle class in Liberia. I went to the Firestone schools up to sixth grade in my household. When the boys got to seventh grade, we were allowed to go to boarding school. Okay. And so I selected to go to Carroll High School, which was a Catholic boarding school, and that’s where I went from and spend my high school years from seventh grade to 12th grade.
After graduating from Carroll high school, I, I went to Rick’s Institute Junior College. It’s a Baptist junior college, but also boarding. We go there and live there. And then I went to the University of Liberia in Monrovia. And there I graduated with a political science and sociology degree. And there I met my wife at the University of Liberia. And, um, after graduating, I, I started to teach, I taught English and literature at the SOS Children’s Village is a, is an organization that was established by an Austrian after World War ii, taking in orphans into his home. And it grew to be a really big organization. Isn’t every African, Asian, European country, after three years of teaching, you know, Liberia was involved, ingulfed in a brutal civil war. And when that war hit Monrovia, that’s when we fled.
Andy Vantrease (00:06:08):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, before you get into that story, I wanna ask a little bit more about just your childhood.
Wilmot Collins (00:06:14):
Growing up in Liberia was fun because, um, where we grew up was Firestone and we had, we had a lot of, you know, expats come in from here. So I grew up playing baseball. I went to the University of Liberia on a tennis scholarship, basketball, all of that, you know, and, um, growing up with my, my parents, my mom was a disciplinarian in the household.
Andy Vantrease (00:06:40):
Wilmot Collins (00:06:40):
Because, uh, my dad was never really around to discipline us. So my mom took on that responsibility. And believe me, she was tough.
Andy Vantrease (00:06:50):
She did it well? <laugh>
Wilmot Collins (00:06:51):
She did it well. We had fun growing up in Liberia. It was a beautiful place. Growing up in Firestone was beautiful.
Andy Vantrease (00:06:58):
So Firestone was the name of the city?
Wilmot Collins (00:07:00):
Andy Vantrease (00:07:01):
The name of the company? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But was it also the name of the city?
Wilmot Collins (00:07:06):
Yeah. Where we, where my parents work, but uh, most importantly, a lot of people don’t know. There’s a town in Firestone called Harba. Okay. Harvey as Firestone was the son of Harvey as Firestone Senior. He was married to Mabel Ford. You know, Henry Ford, the Ford Company. Yeah. So that union happened in Liberia. We have a town in Firestone called Har Bell. Harvey, h a r, and Bell, b e for Mabel. I practically grew up in that town. We grew up 11 in our household. 11 siblings. That is Wow. Seven boys and four girls. We didn’t know it was a lot. We didn’t know, because my wife also from a large family, her dad’s from Lebanon and her mom’s Liberian. And uh, they were almost 17 or 18 themselves, so…
Andy Vantrease (00:07:59):
And so where were you in the order of siblings?
Wilmot Collins (00:08:02):
I was one, two third. Yeah. From the top? Yeah.
Andy Vantrease (00:08:07):
Yeah. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And what types of things do you remember about growing up? Like, what was the relationship dynamic?
Wilmot Collins (00:08:15):
You know, everybody had their favorite sibling. My favorite siblings, my younger sister, joy, she’s a nurse right now. They live in Monrovia, Liberia. She was here with her family. They were in Strausberg, Pennsylvania. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And she and her family decided that it was time to go home. So she pack up her family and it wasn’t Liberia. And she was working there, husband working there, but her kids are in college here, you know, here. Her daughter graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman. And her son is doing computer engineering at one university in Minneapolis. So, and so, yeah, growing up with that many siblings, you know, we got into all kinds of stuff.
Andy Vantrease (00:09:05):
Wilmot Collins (00:09:05):
Because as far as boys, my dad bought each one of us a motorcycle, and we used to just paint the town red, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we were all over the place. When you, when you heard a motorbike, you knew it was a Collins, because imagine five, uh, at the time, we were five boys who were of age to ride the motorcycle. So the five of us got bikes.
Andy Vantrease (00:09:30):
You had like a biker gang?
Wilmot Collins (00:09:32):
Yes, kinda technically, you know, we would all travel together and do all kinds of crazy stuff together. My parents had a poultry farm, so on the weekends we would go and sell chickens in the marketplace. Mm-hmm.
Andy Vantrease (00:09:47):
<affirmative>. And that was like a side thing for them besides teaching and being engineer.
Wilmot Collins (00:09:53):
Yeah, right. And so on the weekends we’ll go to the farm, we’ll have live chickens, we’ll hold them and carry them in the marketplace, selling them. I still remember, depending on the size of the chicken, it could be from 3.50 to $5 per chicken.
Andy Vantrease (00:10:07):
That’s a pretty cheap chicken compared to compared around here. Maybe not. I was gonna say.
Wilmot Collins (00:10:12):
But that was, that was a while ago. We’re talking about the seventies and eighties, because I left, um, Firestone when I was in the seventh grade, I went to boarding school. So we’re talking about before then. Mm-hmm.
Andy Vantrease (00:10:28):
<affirmative> Did you all work on the farm or help?
Wilmot Collins (00:10:32):
We had to go there. Yeah. Oh yeah, we did all of that. We had to change the water. We had to put feed in chicken feed and clean the mess. Yeah. All of that on the weekends. We did all of that. Yeah. It was fun though. Yeah. Looking back at it, I wish I could have my kids go through that.
Andy Vantrease (00:10:50):
Yeah. My dad grew up on a farm as well, and it’s really interesting because I’m starting to get more interested in farming and food systems and things like that. And his father was a farmer, potatoes, corn, watermelon, all these things down in southern Delaware. And so he, when he was growing up, had to help. You know, he talks about, like, they would, he and his buddies would just go out partying the night before and they knew they had to wake up and go and be on the farm. And they’re like, those are some of the worst mornings of our lives, you know? And we had to go and I think they had pigs and chickens. There’s the work ethic that’s instilled in people. And they grow up on farms like that. It’s like there’s, there are no days off. There are no days off. And there’s animals to take care of.
Wilmot Collins (00:11:37):
It’s expected. You have to get it done. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. It’s not like here, the kids, they’ll put up excuses to do their little chores. They’ll take the garbage shop. Oh, it was raining. So what.
Andy Vantrease (00:11:47):
Wilmot Collins (00:11:48):
You know, I didn’t watch mine. The, the dishes didn’t sink because no, there should, should be no reason why you shouldn’t do your chores. Here, we accept those excuses there. We didn’t. Yeah. We just had to do that. Yeah. And my mom would say, unless you’re sick, you’re getting out there mm-hmm. <affirmative> and she would determine whether you’re sick or not.
Andy Vantrease (00:12:07):
Wilmot Collins (00:12:08):
So, you know, you can say, I have a headache, I can’t do it. No. Let me feel you. It should bring a hand my head. Yeah, no, you don’t have fever, so you Okay. Drink some water. Get back out there.
Andy Vantrease (00:12:18):
<laugh> Now did both of your parents grow up in Liberia?
Wilmot Collins (00:12:23):
Yes, okay. Now both of them got scholarships to come to America. My mom graduated from San Francisco State University. Okay. And my dad graduated from Howard University. Mm-hmm.
Andy Vantrease (00:12:34):
<affirmative>. And then went back to raise a family.
Wilmot Collins (00:12:37):
No, my mom, when she came to America, she had a family already. She left us with my father.
Andy Vantrease (00:12:44):
Wilmot Collins (00:12:44):
And came to America for her graduate studies.
Andy Vantrease (00:12:47):
What about, were you raised under a particular religion?
Wilmot Collins (00:12:50):
Every Sunday we had to go to church. We had to go to Sunday school. My mom instilled that in us. My dad didn’t, we went to the Firestone Church and Firestone Church were non-denominational. But my mom is Episcopalian. And when I went to Carroll High School, I joined the Catholic faith. So I was a Catholic until I graduated from high school. And my grandmother, who I loved to death, you know, when I went to the University of Liberia, she introduced me to her church, the Methodist Church, United Methodist Church. And so I started going to her church and uh, she asked, she had a request of me, she said, you know, I’m the only Methodist in this family. And I said, yes, I know Grant. She said, so when I die, there’s no Methodist in the Collins family. So I said, what are you seeing? She said, I want you to join the Methodist Church. So I said, okay. And so I left the Catholic faith, the Catholic Church, enjoy my grandma in her church. I became a Methodist in the eighties.
Andy Vantrease (00:13:59):
What are some of those values that the Methodist Church instills in people?
Wilmot Collins (00:14:05):
The only difference here is I may come here walking, and you may come here by car, or another person may come here by a bike. That’s the only difference how we get there. Yeah. We get there different ways, but we all believe in the same thing. The ten commandment be good to your neighbor, you know, all that stuff. All Christians believe in there. So, um, those values that were instilling us any denomination you were a part of, but when I was a Catholic, there was the same thing. Yeah. Method is the same thing. Just we all got to that point differently. It’s no different. Just be good.
Andy Vantrease (00:14:43):
Yeah. That’s what I often, I mean, especially being in a place like the Feathered Pipe, it’s like there’s what, 18 workshops that come through here every summer mm-hmm. <affirmative> and every teacher is teaching something different, but it’s all ultimately the same thing. You know, seeing God in yourself. You know, and seeing God in other people mm-hmm. <affirmative> and, and knowing that you are inherently good, you know, and finding your way back to that. And it’s like, you know, some people do that through yoga, some people do it through ceremony, some do it through religion. And it’s just all, like you said, it’s like we’re all coming, we all want the same things.
Wilmot Collins (00:15:19):
Yeah. Just how we getting there different.
Andy Vantrease (00:15:20):
We are getting there differently. Yeah.
Wilmot Collins (00:15:22):
That’s all. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, so mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah. But you see like, uh, the church, my Methodist Church that I go to in a, the Covenant United Methodist Church, you know, I could have gone back to being Catholic. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But I had promised my grandma I would be, I’ll be the only Methodist. Now we’ve grown because my wife has joined me in the church. And my kids were baptized in the church. But the reason I keep going back to my church is for the warmth. When you feel welcome. That’s it. Because, uh, I could’ve gone to any other church and I’m sure I would’ve felt welcomed by the congregants, but when I went to Covenant United Methodist, I was so welcome. I said, oh, this is my church. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And I’ve been there for 27 years. So yeah. They’re good people. And I’m sure the Lutheran Church down the road, they’re good people too. Just that where I laid my head, it was comfortable. So I stayed.
Andy Vantrease (00:16:21):
Yeah. Tell me about how you met your wife and we’ll see if this matches the story that your wife had to say.
Wilmot Collins (00:16:28):
Oh man. No. You know, I was at the University of Liberia and I was on the main campus. And my, my, my sister, my favorite sister, joy, joy, had to go on the main campus to get the bus to go to biology. Cuz she did biology and chemistry. So she had to come to our campus and then take the bus to go to her campus, which are about 25 miles away. And I knew her schedule. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So that’s how we’ll go and talk, because we didn’t live in the same home.
Andy Vantrease (00:17:00):
Wilmot Collins (00:17:01):
All right. So she lived with my aunt in Monrovia, and I lived in the family home in Monrovia. All the boys lived in the family home where you, when you were of age to go to the university, that’s where we lived. But the girls lived with relatives, so I knew George’s schedule. So I would always go to the bus stop and we just shoot the breeze. When her bus comes, she goes, and then I go back to my class. So this day she was standing up waiting for the bus and talking to this lady, this other college student. And then I whispered to her, I said, Hey, who’s your friend? Introduced me to your friend? She said, no, you’re not ready, <laugh>. She is way too serious for you. You’re not ready. And I said, no, I am ready. Maybe she will be the one to make me ready. So you can’t, she said, I’m not introducing you, you and Joy refused. So the bus came and, uh, she got on the bus. I got on the bus and I sat right next to her <laugh>. I rode on the bus for 25 miles, and the only thing I got was her name.
Andy Vantrease (00:18:05):
But you were like trying to talk to her and she was just not.
Wilmot Collins (00:18:07):
Yeah, she was not. If my sister couldn’t introduce me to her, that means there was something wrong with me.
Andy Vantrease (00:18:13):
She said, it’s not worth it. <laugh>
Wilmot Collins (00:18:15):
So the only thing I got for 25 miles was her name, Maddie. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So after they got off the bus, I stayed on the bus and drove back another 25 miles and went to my campus. I missed couple of classes because of that. I didn’t rele I kept after her. And one year went to two years, I think I wore her, I wore her thin, I wore out or something because after two years she finally said, okay, let’s give it a shot. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> She was graduating then from the university with chemistry and biology degree. And, um, the biology student association were having a Christmas party. And she asked me to be her date. And the rest is history has been 33 years later. And, um, we got engaged the same day. She, uh, graduated from college. June 6th, 1990, no, a year later we got married in Ghana where we fled Liberia because of the war. We got married in Ghana in June 6th, 1991. So we’ve been married for 30 years, but we’ve been together for 33. Mm-hmm.
Andy Vantrease (00:19:29):
<affirmative>. And was your sister fine.
Wilmot Collins (00:19:31):
I always remind her, you almost calls me my family. <laugh> you almost calls me my family. I remind her all the time. See, I told you that’s, that’s that one person who just might do it, you know? And she happened to have been that one because my sister was right at that time, I wasn’t settled. And, um, she just didn’t want anybody getting hurt.
Andy Vantrease (00:19:52):
Maybe you needed those two years though.
Wilmot Collins (00:19:54):
Everything worked all the way It should have been.
Andy Vantrease (00:19:58):
Yeah. So let’s get into the story of the Civil War and you guys having to flee and go to Ghana. I mean, this is just honestly, well, not one of the most incredible stories that I’ve heard and wanting to give you some space to, to kind of recount that.
Wilmot Collins (00:20:14):
You bet. You know, Liberia, Liberia was established by slaves that were free from America. So they were free. They went to Liberia and they named that place. Liberia in Latin means free, free and like liberation. And the name, the capital Monrovia in honor of James Monroe, the fifth president, because he was part of the American colonization society that sent the slaves back. And technically he purchased slaves and send them to freedom. So they honor him by naming in, in the capital city in honor of James Monroe. And so Liberia’s the first independent African nation. And we lived peacefully until, um, William Tolbert, who was the president in 1980, Dr. Tolbert, who was a Baptist minister, and also president, was killed in a <inaudible>. And the military took over the country. The leader of the military at the time was Samuel Do. He was the highest ranking military personnel at the time.
He was a master sergeant. And when the military took over the Liberia, things deteriorated fast. And a lot of people fled the country. And one of those who fled was Charles Taylor, who worked for the military leader and then fled later on. And, um, he realized there were a lot of suffering in Liberia. And so he decided to get training while he was outside of Liberia. And he was able to get, uh, a group of people together, Liberians some other foreign nationals to enter Liberia and take back the country. In 1989, December 24th, we heard about Charles Taylor coming into Liberia, but he was so far away from where we live, we didn’t think he would ever get to us. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, everything was still normal in Monrovia. Whereas the people in the rural areas were running helter skelter, some of them relocating to Monrovia. And, um, as the war got closer and closer to Monrovia and we started hearing stories of the rebels, what they were doing to innocent people, what they were doing to civilians, it was getting scary.
Andy Vantrease (00:22:39):
So Charles Taylor, he was coming back in to try to overthrow the military government at that point. Okay.
Wilmot Collins (00:22:47):
Andy Vantrease (00:22:47):
I’m just trying to think like, who’s the bad guys.
Wilmot Collins (00:22:49):
Charles Steel was hailed as the good guy, the country. He lost control of his people. Ah, so there weren’t any good guys anymore. Yeah. Because when you were on the, um, the side that the soldiers control, the soldiers were attacking civilians because they didn’t, the rebels didn’t wear uniforms. Mm. So the soldiers didn’t know who was who. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And the rebels didn’t know if the soldiers were on their side because they had taking uniforms off. It was just a chaotic situation. Right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So my wife Maddie was at the time, she was just about completing her first year of medical school when all hell broke loose in Monrovia. Cuz I remember I used to live on the medical dorm with her. And then during the evening hours, the doctors would allow all the medical students into the, the local Catholic hospital to help them.
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And because I was on the dorm with my fiance, I, I used to go and have a dressing coat and all of that and be in the hospital. And that’s how we spend the days. You know, in the day we’ll go to the medical dorm in the night we go back to, um, the hospital. And so this day the soldiers raided the hospital because they believed there were rebels in the hospital being treated. A buddy of mine, he and I were very close, Festus Thomas, and his wife was in medical school. Mom. Well, we both married to our sweetheart, you know. Yeah. Now that was his fiance. That was my fiance. And, um, they both were in medical school. So we were very close. This night when the soldiers raided the hospital. Believe this or not, I don’t know why. We parked our car right next to the ER and that’s where the soldiers went. So we parked the car and he and myself put the seat back and we were just sleeping in the car. And the soldiers, more than 20 soldiers walked by that car and didn’t see us. There was no tinted windows or anything.
Andy Vantrease (00:25:07):
Oh my God.
Wilmot Collins (00:25:08):
How they didn’t see us? I don’t know. I really don’t know. As a matter of fact, when they raided the hospital, Maddie, my wife just knew we were dead.
Andy Vantrease (00:25:20):
Right, because she knew you were in the car right outside in the car.
Wilmot Collins (00:25:23):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. They knew we were dead, but we slept through everything. All the gunfire, everything was slept through everything. It was only the working of the Lord. Because how we gotten up, we would’ve opened the door over the door. Yeah. And they would’ve seen us. We would’ve been killed. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But we slept through everything. And when the soldiers finally left with people, I mean, they took people in the cars, left in the trucks. My wife ran outside when they left and bang on the door, that was the first time we opened our eyes. And she said, you guys are alive. I said, yeah, what happened, <laugh>? She said, you don’t know what happened. No. We’ve been sleeping. And so when they explained what had happened in the hospital, I mean, I have goosebumps. How could the soldiers not see us in the car? The windows were not tinted. How could more than 20 people walk by the car and not see two human beings in there in the front seat?
Andy Vantrease (00:26:26):
And walk like by a couple times,
Wilmot Collins (00:26:28):
Andy Vantrease (00:26:28):
Bringing other people out. Yeah.
Wilmot Collins (00:26:32):
Catholic brothers who took care of the hospital said, we can’t keep you guys anymore. You have to leave. Yeah. So we decided to move into my, my sister Joy, who I, I always say she should be in the Guinness book of record as the longest vacation <laugh>. When she heard about the war coming closer and closer to Monro. She said, you know, I’ll just go to America and go for vacation. When the war come and go, then I’ll come back. The war never came in. When American Embassy estimated that when the war hit Monrovia, it will last for about two weeks. So we should save you love food and water for two weeks. The war lasted 14 years. When we left the Catholic hospital, we went to my sister’s home about two, three miles away from the Catholic hospital. And on our first night, that area became a war zone.
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. We literally stayed on our stomach for three days because the stray bullets were going through the house. Phew, phew. They say when you hear they sound, you know you’re alive. Mm. You know? So, um, we stayed there for three days and then on the fourth day we heard the soldier saying, if you’re in here, get out. They were tell everybody in the area to get out. Get out. And they were pushing us. When we got outta your house, they were telling you to go to the soldier side, you know? And when we got out the place was littered with bodies, littered with bodies. We were jumping over bodies. And, um, I tried to jump over this and I stepped on a body, you know, that feeling. You stepped on a human being, even though the person was dead. I never got over that feeling of stepping on that dead body, you know?
Andy Vantrease (00:28:28):
Wilmot Collins (00:28:29):
And we ran to my family home this time and we stayed there for a couple of weeks. And then we heard about the safest area in Monrovia was the area around the American Embassy. And so my wife, myself and my mom, my siblings, some of my siblings, we decided that we were going there. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but we didn’t know where we were going to be living. But we decided we were going to go there.
Andy Vantrease (00:29:01):
How far away was that?
Wilmot Collins (00:29:02):
It was about from where? From my family house to the American embassy. You’re talking about Maybe five, six miles. Okay. Not very far. So we walked there and we were just out in the open. And this lady recognized my mom and said, I have a room in my house, but there’s no bed, there’s nothing you can use it. At least you’d be out of the elements. And so we were happy to have gotten that room. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I think we’re about six or seven of us in that room, remember this size? Can you imagine? So everything, furniture and no nothing.
Andy Vantrease (00:29:41):
Wilmot Collins (00:29:42):
Just a roof. Just plain. Just, yeah. Right. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So every day there’ll be one person trying to go look for food, you know. So I remember this day, my mom said, okay, my nickname is daddy, boy, you know, my mom said, okay, daddy, boys, your turn to look. And then my fiance said, no, I’ll go with you. I don’t want you going alone. So we got out about nine o’clock that day and we went looking for food. And we went all into the rebel health areas. The only thing we found was a tube of toothpaste.
Andy Vantrease (00:30:18):
Wilmot Collins (00:30:19):
<affirmative>. We found a tube of toothpaste. And, um, I shared it with my wife. And that’s what we had. We ate it. Pepsident toothpaste. That’s what we had. And so coming back between, from the rebel held areas, we got stopped at a gate checkpoint. And the guy called my wife and he said, who’s that man? Is that your man? And she said, yes.
And, he started interrogating her. After about 20 minutes. He said, you know, you guys are very lucky today. I’ve met my quarter in killing. I’m done killing for the day. Get out of here. How did we escape that? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, he was tired, killing for the day. And we ran and ran and kept looking back. Cause I was almost sure he was gonna shoot us in the back. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. I mean, we walked almost 500 feet backwards thinking he would shoot us in the back. I didn’t believe him. And we went home and I said, this is it. I’m not going out anymore.
So, um, we had heard that West African countries were sending peacekeepers to Monrovia, Liberia. And they would come on cargo vessels. And they were asking Liberians, if you wanted to leave, you can leave on those vessels. The first vessel came and left. We didn’t know about it, but the second one came, we heard about it. I told my mom that night, we prayed. I said, we gotta go. We will die. We don’t have any food. And I mean, I was, what would you consider a bag of bones when my wife and I, it that tube of toothpaste, we hadn’t eaten anything for days. So I told my mom, I said, we gotta go. There’s a ship at the port. Let’s go.
She prayed about it. And uh, the next morning we all packed what we had, what very little we had. And we walked to the, we said, it’s time. Let’s go. My mom said, no, I’m not leaving. I said, you crazy? She said, I’m not leaving. I said, no, you gotta go. We’re going. And I couldn’t convince my mom to go. And her reason was when we fell asleep, she prayed some more and the Lord is not leading her. So she can’t leave if the Lord isn’t leading her. I said, the Lord is leading your mom, because the Lord brought that ship.
Andy Vantrease (00:33:13):
Wilmot Collins (00:33:14):
Who brought the ship? She said, the peacekeepers. I said, no, the Lord brought the ship. That’s a sign. She said, no. So I said, well, then we’re leaving you. She said, okay. So just as we were walking out the door, she called my wife and handed her $5 and said, go. God, be with you. So we left when we got to the Port of Monrovia to get on the, the ship, the line was a mile or more long. And we were at the back of the line. And we stayed online Friday, all Friday.
You know, it was only God, because there is no way, I can’t even go 20 minutes without running to the restroom to pee or do something.
Andy Vantrease (00:34:08):
Wilmot Collins (00:34:09):
And then we stayed online all Friday, all Saturday, all Sunday. Not once did I leave line to go to the restroom. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, not once we were determined. And finally Sunday around 9:47 PM. We were chosen to get on board this ship.
Andy Vantrease (00:34:28):
Were they going in line?
Wilmot Collins (00:34:30):
No. They, or they were just, they were just sticking people. Picking random people. Yes. As you got closer to the ship, because there were so many of us that were just pick you, you get up, you, you get up, you, you. So they finally got up and, uh, in fact, this, to pick my wife to go up and not me, but we were holding hands. We said, we will not part. And so then we raised our hands like that. And he said, you too, get up. So when we got on board this year, finally it was about five to 10, 10 o’clock, they couldn’t accept anymore. 10 o’clock to shut their gates. And, um, there was only standing room. So we were, we just had a place to stand. And that night it rained, it rained on us.
Andy Vantrease (00:35:16):
Wilmot Collins (00:35:16):
Yeah. We were just out in the, on the deck. It was not a cruise ship to leave me. It was a cargo ship.
Andy Vantrease (00:35:22):
Wilmot Collins (00:35:24):
So the next morning, so I asked my wife, I said, so where are we going? She said, I thought you knew, we didn’t even know where we were going when we got on board that ship. So we started asking around, where’s the ship going? They said, well, the first stop was in Ghana. And from Liberia to Ghana, it was a three days journey. No food, no water, just standing up. We had to lean against each other. Other, the second day when it became daylight, we just heard people crying, crying, wailing, crying, just to find out the loved ones had died the night before. And then they hit me. My mom wasn’t, well.
Andy Vantrease (00:36:12):
She wouldn’t have made it.
Wilmot Collins (00:36:12):
She wouldn’t have made it. And then I said, my God, I could not in good conscience dump my mom overboard. That’s what they were doing. Yeah. Whew.
We watch people through the loved ones overboard. Yeah. So the third day we, we arrived in Ghana. I told my wife, I said, look, that was that I work for in Liberia, have a branch in Ghana. I don’t know where, but give me the five bucks. Let me go look for them.
Andy Vantrease (00:36:53):
Wilmot Collins (00:36:55):
And so she handed me the $5. I was able to sneak out of the port cuz we weren’t allowed. But I snuck out and I stopped the cab. I said, look, I’m looking for the SOS Children’s Village. He said, I know where he is at. I said, I don’t have much money. I only have $5. He said I would do. But later on I found it was only 50 cents. It would’ve cost me. Yeah. So we got to the village, I met the village father, the director and introduced myself. We’re from SOS Liberia. And he said, do you have an ID? I said, no, because in Liberia we couldn’t travel with identification cards for fear that we, someone would link us to something. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> or someone. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So everybody got rid of IDs. Could not prove that I was who I was. So he said, well, there’s some kids that came from Liberia, as well as on the first ship. If they can identify you, we will help you. I said, please send for them. I used to teach them.
Andy Vantrease (00:38:09):
Wilmot Collins (00:38:10):
So he sent for them. And then when the boys came, there were three boys. When the Keen and saw me, they started crying. For me, I thought they will be happy, but they were crying. So that kind of, that was a little confusing there. And I didn’t understand why they were crying when they saw me, until I asked to use the restroom. Restroom for the first time. And I looked in the mirror. When they knew me, I was a hundred and seventy, two hundred seventy five pounds. That day. I was 92 pounds. 92 pounds 92. My wife was 87. Then I as to why they were crying. Yeah. The director, they knew I was a teacher. So he, uh, eventually put me back into the school and I started teaching again. And they started giving us stipends, you know. And then my wife was in medical school. She started helping out in the clinic. And my brother-in-law was, is an engineer. He started helping out with the facilities, you know, all of that kind of stuff.
Andy Vantrease (00:39:27):
At the school, at the SOS? Okay.
Wilmot Collins (00:39:29):
In Ghana. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so they put us to work basically, which was good. But after three months, my wife said, this is not what I want. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> This is not life. Let’s go to America. I said, how are you supposed to do that? She said, let’s go to Montana.
Andy Vantrease (00:39:53):
Wilmot Collins (00:39:55):
I said, you gotta make up your mind. We ought to go to Montana. We go to America. She said, Montana is in America. <laugh>. My wife was an African Exchange student. And she came to Helena, Montana. She lived with a host family.
Andy Vantrease (00:40:12):
In high school?
Wilmot Collins (00:40:12):
Andy Vantrease (00:40:13):
Bruce and Joyce Knoxs. Bruce was vice principal by Helen Hyde. And later went to Capital High. His wife Joyce was elementary school teacher. Brian Elementary School. And then she taught in Montessori. So my wife said, I’m still in touch with my host family. Let me call them to see if they can help us. And she called them and they were so happy. And we asked for some money.
Wilmot Collins (00:40:50):
And I still remember Joyce saying, we would do a little more than that. We’ll bring you over. But I had no clue. Damn. You think I will get over this? It’s always so fresh. So Joyce wanted to do more than just sending us money. Europe led us to the embassy to get us over. And we realized the only way we would come to America, we had to enter school. But the Knoxs went to Carroll College and Carroll awarded my wife a full scholarship to do nursing and put me on this scholarship as her dependent.
Wilmot Collins (00:41:48):
Wilmot Collins (00:41:51):
And when we went to the embassy with all the necessary documents, they refused. They denied us. And we tried to question why, because we had every necessary document.
Andy Vantrease (00:42:05):
And a host family and yeah. Somebody who you would stay with.
Wilmot Collins (00:42:08):
They, uh, still denied us. So we went back and I, you know, who told them, we thank men for all the efforts they made and all of that. But they did not relent. They contacted their congressman, Pat Williams, Senator Max Baucus, and Senator Conrad Burns. They contacted all those people and those people wrote letters. And then this day, the embassy sent a vehicle to the SOS village looking for us. When we got on the phone, us, they asked if we could come back for another interview. And we said yes. We went back, and we were so scared we didn’t know what to make up the interview because we didn’t know what, what it was going to be saying, the right thing or the wrong thing, or what they were looking for. Mm-hmm.
Andy Vantrease (00:43:01):
Wilmot Collins (00:43:02):
And they just asked one question and, and I was scared. We were scared. They asked, will Mr. Collins be joining you to go to America? By this time we didn’t know what to make up the question. We didn’t know what to do because she had the scholarship. And so we decided, no, she got the scholarship. She would be going alone. The lady asked the question for the second time, and we told her for the second time, no, my wife would be going to school alone. So she awarded my wife a visa, stamped a passport to come to America. August 19th, 1991 was her departure date. And um…
Andy Vantrease (00:43:52):
And you had just gotten married two months before that?
Wilmot Collins (00:43:54):
We got married in June.
Andy Vantrease (00:43:56):
Wilmot Collins (00:43:59):
So two weeks before her departure, she started to get really, really sick. Took her to the hospital, checked her out. The doctor comes out and says, congratulations Mr. Collins. She assumed be a proud father. And I’m like, no, no, no. My wife is going to school. My wife is going to school. This can’t be happening.
Andy Vantrease (00:44:23):
Oh my God.
Wilmot Collins (00:44:23):
They said, well, she will go to school pregnant.
Wilmot Collins (00:44:26):
I said, yeah.
Andy Vantrease (00:44:27):
And not only is she going to school, she’s going to school in America.
Wilmot Collins (00:44:31):
We talked about it that night. I said, I don’t know you. You have so much on your plate, I don’t think you should go. She said, I think that’s the best for us. She said the hardest thing about it is to, she still call them mom and dad, the Knoxs, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. She said, the hardest thing is to tell mom and dad about my pregnancy. I said, I’ll write them a letter. And I hang out her that letter. I said, give it to the Knox. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, well, mad came and went into the home, the Knox family home. She said, mom, I got a letter for you. She said, are you pregnant?
Andy Vantrease (00:45:08):
That’s just what women know. <laugh>.
Wilmot Collins (00:45:11):
She, oh, you’re pregnant. Women know these things. I’m telling you. Just like that. So Maddie said, yes. She says, okay, we’ll go through it.
So Maddie phone her friend, she was Korean at Carol. The baby was born. Maddie was still in school. So she and her friend created the schedule where when Maddie was leaving class, her friend would meet her halfway, hand her off the baby. And when the friend’s leaving class, Maddie will leave the friend halfway hand off the baby and go to class. So that’s how they did it for almost two years.
Andy Vantrease (00:45:50):
Wilmot Collins (00:45:53):
In the meantime, I was still trying to join my family, but it became more and more difficult. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So finally Congress passed the Liberian Resettlement Act, which stated that if you had an immediate relative in America who was a citizen or who was a permanent resident, they would allow you to go through the process and join them. You had to register with a United Nation High Commission for Refugees. You had to register with UNHCR and go through their process. And then you could eventually join your family.
Andy Vantrease (00:46:30):
Wilmot Collins (00:46:32):
But I was, I thought I met the qualification at the time when they passed the act. My wife was in school pregnant. So I went to the embassy and said, I have a wife. She’s in America. They said, no, she’s in school. She doesn’t qualify. Oh. So when our daughter was born, I went back to the Embassy. Embassy. I said, I have a daughter in America. And then they told me I had to prove my daughter was my daughter. And that was the process. Oh my gosh. That’s what took a lot of time. I had to, I mean, I had to send letters that we had written to prove that we were still together. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>
Andy Vantrease (00:47:13):
Did you have to prove biologically that it was your daughter? You got like a paternity test.
Wilmot Collins (00:47:16):
Birth certificate, all that stuff. After about a year, I just told Maddie, I’ll never join you. Why don’t you move on? She said, no, you will. Just keep praying. I said, I don’t know how much longer I can do this.
Andy Vantrease (00:47:32):
Were you still in Ghana?
Wilmot Collins (00:47:33):
I was in Ghana for a while when I was telling Maddie to move on. And then there, there’s a cease fire. Then I told her, I’m going back to Liberia. I can’t do it here. So I left her, went back to Liberia, and then the cease fire broke.
Andy Vantrease (00:47:47):
Wilmot Collins (00:47:48):
And when the cease fire broke this time, I fled into the Ivory Coast, where they speak French. So I was homeless. I was on the streets.
Andy Vantrease (00:47:57):
And not knowing how to speak French.
Wilmot Collins (00:47:59):
Thank you. It wasn’t easy. I was a VA bull. And so my wife thought I was dead.
Andy Vantrease (00:48:06):
Cause there was no communication.
Wilmot Collins (00:48:08):
No communication. None whatsoever. Yeah. Where would I, how would I communicate with her? Right. I didn’t have any way. I was homeless. So a buddy of mine found me on the streets.
Andy Vantrease (00:48:20):
Because he had also fled.
Wilmot Collins (00:48:23):
Yeah. But his, his dad was a diplomat.
Andy Vantrease (00:48:25):
Wilmot Collins (00:48:26):
So he was a little better. And he was my best friend. But I was so out of it, six months living on the streets. And um, he was driving a Mercedes. He stopped. He said, Collins. In Liberia and people call you by your last name means to know you. Well. So when I heard my knee, I stopped. He said, you don’t recognize me. I said, sorry man. No. He said, I’m Bliss, Bliss Skeer. I said, oh, okay. This is my best friend. We were room mix in high school. We went to the same Catholic boarding school. I was so out of it. So he said, where are you? I said, where you see me? He said, no, no. I mean, where do you live? I said, where you see me? He said, oh my God, get in the car. I got in his Mercedes. He took me to his father’s home. Daddy, daddy, look who I found. Dad came, imagine six months, no shower. So I don’t even want to know what they were smelling. I don’t even want to imagine. And so his father said, where’s your family? I said, they’re in America.
He said, okay, you can stay with us until you join your family. I said, thank you. The next morning, I heard a light tap on the door and I yelled. I said, yeah, come in. The butler said, breakfast is served.
Andy Vantrease (00:50:11):
The butler. <laugh>. Oh my god.
Wilmot Collins (00:50:13):
I’m telling you man.
Andy Vantrease (00:50:19):
I mean the weaving between worlds.
Wilmot Collins (00:50:22):
Yeah. He said, breakfast is served. I don’t even know what took nick of it. Breakfast is served. I went outside and, uh, had breakfast. And they allowed me to call my wife for the first time in six months. All I could hear her say is you’re alive. I said, yes I am.
Andy Vantrease (00:50:43):
Wilmot Collins (00:50:45):
And I told her where it was and uh, she was able to find a friend and she sent me some clothes, shoes and along with that to the coast. And then I got on the process to join them because now we had her daughter. I had to prove my daughter was my daughter. And that process took forever. Forever. And then finally I had, I had given, provided the necessary information the UN and the American Embassy were looking for. And I got chosen to leave. By this time my daughter’s turning two years old. Hadn’t seen her.
Andy Vantrease (00:51:28):
Had you heard her on the phone or anything?
Wilmot Collins (00:51:31):
We heard baby sound. Yeah, we heard baby sound. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. I saw pictures because, you know, in, I recalls were pretty peaceful. We were sending letters and pictures back and forth.
February 15th, I got on board a flight, Air France from the Ivory Coast. We passed through Paris. And uh, February 16 we landed a JFK airport. I was put in a hotel for the night and I wanted to talk to my wife so bad. The phone booth. I went there and the cost was 35 cents and I had 25 cents.
Andy Vantrease (00:52:26):
To your name.
Wilmot Collins (00:52:27):
Yes, yes. So I saw this guy walking in the lobby. I said, excuse me sir, so would you loan me a dime? He said, how would I be paid back? I said, okay. Excuse me. Would you give me a dime? And then he handed me a dime. And then I called Maddie. I spoke to her for three minutes. I said, I’ll be in Helen tomorrow. So the next day…
Andy Vantrease (00:53:00):
Two, two years and seven months, you, you said.
Wilmot Collins (00:53:03):
Yes. Let me backtrack. That evening, when I arrived at JFK, before I went to the hotel, my sister Joy met me at the airport.
Andy Vantrease (00:53:13):
Oh, cuz she was still in America.
Wilmot Collins (00:53:15):
Yes. Okay. That’s why I said the longest ever.
Wilmot Collins (00:53:19):
Wilmot Collins (00:53:20):
She was still in America. She met me at the airport and she had this huge bag. She said, you’re going to Montana. It’s February, whatever I give you, you put on. So that morning we’re about to go to the airport, you know, we got dress and everything. She had two sets of Long Jones in there. She had a winter jacket, she had turtle. So knew had a vest. I mean, but I was, do you know how difficult it is to put on two sets of long junk <laugh>? Who does that? By the time, I didn’t know any better. So I got dressed with everything she gave me. I was going to be in the airport, the terminal where it’s not cold. And so I’m looking around. I’m the only person sweating, get on the plane. I am so wet. So we had a layover in Salt Lake City. So I ran over to the restroom and took off a few layers. And as we got back on the plane in Salt Lake City, my seat was the window.
Andy Vantrease (00:54:22):
Wilmot Collins (00:54:23):
And this guy sat next to me, was the aisles. But we were on the scene, you know, the same place. When he sat down, he said Hello. I said, hello. He said, you must be Walmart. I almost lost it. I said, well, well who are you? Who are you? He said, oh, I’m sorry. I’m coming to Helen them to meet you. My name is Craig Baker. He said, my parents were the one that awarded your wife the scholarship. And they heard you were going to be, I didn’t know I was going to be on the same plane with you. I said, well how did you know I was Wilmot? He said, look around the plane. And I looked around. I said, okay, okay. So we landed in Helena and they had all this banners up at the airport terminal, welcome home Wilmot. And I mean, it was just crazy. I stayed on the plane and I was the last to get off. And then I got off. Then I walked into the terminal and I don’t know what happened, but the first site I caught was my wife with the baby.
Andy Vantrease (00:55:35):
Wilmot Collins (00:55:35):
She was holding the baby up in her arm.
Andy Vantrease (00:55:37):
Wilmot Collins (00:55:38):
And then I saw her put Jamie, I daughter down. And she said, there’s daddy. Go to daddy. And Jamie started walking towards me. So I stopped because she didn’t know me. I didn’t know who, I didn’t want to startle her. Yeah. So I stopped and, and then for some odd reason she started to run towards me. And so I just ran towards her. I just pick up a and just fell on my knees and just bawling and crying.
Andy Vantrease (00:56:14):
Wilmot Collins (00:56:15):
Yeah. And then I thought she was going to be, you know, cry. But she helped me so tight <laugh>. I just started yelling. Mad, mad. And um, I met everybody, you know, I went around and met all the people that went there to meet me. And we went to the Knoxs home and we lived there for another six months before we got accepted into Steward Homes, the low income housing in Helena. And we stayed there until we got on our feet.
Andy Vantrease (00:57:02):
What do you remember about those first couple days in Helena?
Wilmot Collins (00:57:07):
It was hard.
Andy Vantrease (00:57:09):
Wilmot Collins (00:57:09):
<laugh>. Yeah. In February. Every, every morning our family, Maddie would get dressed and she would go to school. The baby would go to daycare. I would get in the car and they come to Helen with Bruce Knox. And I would just walk around town. And my second week, the end of my second week, I remember seeing the capital building and I ran up the front stairs and to my right I saw Office of the Secretary of State to my left. I saw office of the Governor. And I said, I’m going to the governor. I’m gonna meet the governor. So as I approached his office, I got stopped and his receptionist asked, do you have an appointment? I said, no, I don’t. She said, would you like to make one? I said, yeah, sure. So I started to my name down and my address and this gentleman came behind me and said, may I help you? I said, no, I’m here to meet the governor. He said, well, I’m the governor, Marc Rocicot, what can I do for you? I said, oh, why you know.
So I stopped what I was doing. I said, well, I just came from Africa two weeks ago and I thought I should come and meet you. He said, what about Africa? I said, well, I’m from Liberia. He said, oh, where the slaves were sent. I said, he said, come on in. And I walked in his office. He said, so Mr. Collins, what do you do? I pull on my resume from my pocket cuz I travel on my resume everywhere I went, <laugh>. I hand it to him and he looked it over and he presses in come. He said, Pat, would you come in? So this lady comes in and he hands my resume to her and she looks at it. She said, are you Maddie’s husband?
Andy Vantrease (00:59:04):
Wilmot Collins (00:59:06):
I say, yes. She said, oh, Maddie and my daughter take classes together at Carroll That’s how I knew Maddie. I said, my god, small world. So she said, but you work with kids in my children’s home is looking for a, a counselor. Why don’t you apply a, use the government myself as your reference.
Andy Vantrease (00:59:27):
It’s a pretty sure fire bet. <laugh> say,
Wilmot Collins (00:59:29):
I can do that. Say yes. So I applied
Andy Vantrease (00:59:34):
Two weeks after you got here?
Wilmot Collins (00:59:36):
Two weeks after I got here. The third week I was working. Okay. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, my wife was still going to Carro. I said, where else do you see that happening? In Montana? Yeah. No where else? You see that Montana’s a big but small state.
Andy Vantrease (00:59:51):
You kind of got dropped into a really special little small town.
Wilmot Collins (00:59:57):
<laugh>. I know. Yes, yes, indeed.
Andy Vantrease (01:00:00):
Do you have any sense of how long it took you to trust and like get out of survival mode? I mean, what was your nervous system like?
Wilmot Collins (01:00:11):
Andy Vantrease (01:00:11):
What was your body like?
Wilmot Collins (01:00:13):
When a car backfire? Oh, we hit the floor. 4th of July was crazy for us.
Andy Vantrease (01:00:19):
Oh my God.
Wilmot Collins (01:00:21):
But it took, it took a while, you know?
Andy Vantrease (01:00:23):
Wilmot Collins (01:00:23):
But just the love and care that we got, my family and I got from this community made it so easy.
Andy Vantrease (01:00:29):
Wilmot Collins (01:00:30):
They made it so easy. We were in a loving home. Within two weeks I met the governor and started working. Come on. I made some good friendship. I think that’s what made it so easy. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that’s what made me get out there. That’s what made me comfortable enough to share my story.
Andy Vantrease (01:00:51):
Wilmot Collins (01:00:51):
Because of who I met in this state. They wanted to know, they were curious. They wanted to know. Cuz Montana, believe it or not, when I came in 1994, there weren’t many African Americans around.
Andy Vantrease (01:01:07):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Your daughter was one of two. Yeah. Black children in her school.
Wilmot Collins (01:01:12):
Yeah. In fact, I met an African American guy, but he’s mixed, so I didn’t even know he was mixed. He told me, because in the winter he was so light. And then in the summer, he’s like an Italian guy, so he’s a little dark, you know?
Andy Vantrease (01:01:25):
Wilmot Collins (01:01:26):
And we struck up a really good friendship. And then I went to church and I met my church family. My daughter got baptized in that church. Man. I was just surrounded by love. I’m not kidding you. I was surrounded by love.
Andy Vantrease (01:01:44):
Wow. That, I mean, it, it’s just such an incredible story. I mean, you just hit the ground running three weeks had a job, I the ground running. You joined the church. Was that a way for you to just really start the integration, assimilate
Wilmot Collins (01:01:58):
Andy Vantrease (01:02:00):
And just meet people.
Wilmot Collins (01:02:02):
I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t know the people. I, I had to get involved and that’s where, that’s stepping outta your comfort zone. And then I started singing in the choir, my church choir. And then, because I knew I played soccer in Liberia. And so, so I started using what little talent I had. I started coaching soccer at the YWC, YMCA.
Andy Vantrease (01:02:25):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I started coaching soccer. So people, believe it or not, almost every parent wanted their kids on my team because, um, I was one parent that knew soccer and knew how to play it. <laugh>, you know? Yeah. I just put myself out there. I just put myself out there and things started to turn around. I started coaching my daughter, soccer, she got involved with soccer, she got involved with volleyball. I mean, you know, we put in everything. My son came later two and a half years later.
I just realized, you know your son’s name is Bliss? Yeah. Named after your friend?
Wilmot Collins (01:03:00):
Yep. Yep. Wow. My friend I, I met in the I coast. Yeah. Well, when you were having a boy, I called him up and told him, I said, Hey, do me the honors. He said, I’ll be honored to have your son. You know, so, yeah. Yeah.
Andy Vantrease (01:03:14):
And what was it like raising kids here?
Wilmot Collins (01:03:18):
Andy Vantrease (01:03:18):
Yeah. How so?
Wilmot Collins (01:03:19):
We were raised the African way, and my son says it best, he said, man, growing up in an African home in America is difficult. We try to raise our kids the way we were raised. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and you spare to Rogers for the child. Well, here man, you couldn’t do that. Just like that.
Andy Vantrease (01:03:38):
Wilmot Collins (01:03:40):
It had us thinking, cuz we had to be cautious. We had to be careful what we do in terms of, you know, disciplining our kids. So we had to regroup and rethink things. But I still remember one time I was in Dillard’s at the time, Dillard’s was here at the mall, you know, and this lady, little son kept running and hiding among the clothes, <laugh>, you know, this little boy hiding among the clothes. And she just got so annoyed cuz she, she tried to stop him and wouldn’t, and she just grabbed him and spank his butt and he, she got the cops called on her. And that freaked me out. The police came and so I decided that I was not even going to speak English when my kids got mad at me. They learn fast. When I spoke the local dial, they knew what it meant. You better ship up or else when we get home. <laugh> You know, we were stern with them, but they knew we loved them. They knew we, we, we showered them with love when they Sure. They never went without.
Andy Vantrease (01:04:49):
How has it been, you know, kind of what we were talking about in the very beginning about like growing up in a particular way with a particular work ethic and expectations from your parents.
Wilmot Collins (01:05:00):
Andy Vantrease (01:05:01):
And then raising kids in a different era, you know, a different generation, but also they’re safe. You know what I mean? Like, there’s not the experiences that you go through and the, the experiences that live in your body and how does that carry over?
Wilmot Collins (01:05:19):
I remember the first time my son said, Dad, you a faker. So I said, what the hell is that? What do you mean I’m a faker? He said, when you’re talking to the white people, you, you sound different than when you’re talking to like Liberians on the phone. I said, because when I’m talking to like beers on the phone, I’m myself.
Andy Vantrease (01:05:39):
Wilmot Collins (01:05:40):
They understand me. But I have to be very deliberate when I’m talking to others here in Montana because I have to speak slowly. I have to enunciate every vow so they can understand
Andy Vantrease (01:05:53):
Wilmot Collins (01:05:55):
And that’s all I’m doing. We never hesitated to tell our kids that we were poor. My son can explain my story because we told him about what we went through.
Andy Vantrease (01:06:06):
Wilmot Collins (01:06:07):
And um, how when I came to America, I came here with 25 cents and I left that in the phone booth. So technically I came to Montana without a dime, without a penny. Whatever we made here, we made it through hard work. And that’s what we try to discipline in with. If you can work, if you’re serious, there’s no reason why you won’t make it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, there’s no reason why you won’t make it in America. If you work hard and you’re serious, you will make it go to school. Be serious. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And I think they took that because my son is working and I, and of course I always told them what my mom always said. My mom always told us that, um, you had to be better than your parents educationally and financially. So I told her, I told my kids my mom had her masters, so if I have to be better than her, I have to get my doctorate. And then I would have to make more money than she made when she was superintendent of schools. So I remember my son saying, dad, I don’t need to have a doctorate to make money <laugh>. So I said, but you spoken like a true millennial <laugh>. Yes. So I said, well, that’s what my parents taught me. And that’s what, so I’m working on my dissertation right now. Really? Yeah. I completed my coursework for my doctorate in forensic psychology. Okay. And my wife just completed her PhD in as a nurse practitioner. So my kids are all worried that they would have to get two doctorates, you know.
Andy Vantrease (01:07:43):
Yeah. I was gonna say.
Wilmot Collins (01:07:44):
That. No, you don’t have to get two doctorates to, you know, so, but both of them are working graduate school, you know, so that’s good. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and that’s all we ask, you know? Yeah. I always telling them, Helen raised you. Yeah. And so you always give thanks to Helena because now that you’re in Seattle, Seattle is enjoying the benefits of Helena. You know, and I told my daughter, the UK and the Navy, they’re enjoying the benefit of Helena. Always remember that.
Andy Vantrease (01:08:13):
What are some of the Liberian cultural traditions that you still really hold onto with you and Maddie and with your family, your kids?
Wilmot Collins (01:08:26):
Oh my God, the food.
Andy Vantrease (01:08:27):
I gotta come to your house for dinner. <laugh> the food.
Wilmot Collins (01:08:29):
We still, we still hold onto the food that my kids love the food. There’s this guy who lives in Atlanta, he, he exports, it’s the Liberian food. My son eats Liberian food. So sometimes we’ll order food and ship it to him in Seattle. We ship it here to us. Or whenever we travel to Minneapolis where my mom and my sister are, we’ll buy some Liberian food and Maddie will cook it. The food has been that way. And um, my kids have picked up our accent, you know, but you can tell that they just, they only say it when they’re around a lot of Liberians…
Andy Vantrease (01:09:04):
Just like the way you were doing on the phone.
Wilmot Collins (01:09:06):
Right Now they’re fakers do that, you know.
Andy Vantrease (01:09:09):
That happens, you know, it happens to everybody and you
Wilmot Collins (01:09:12):
Don’t even notice it. Because I never noticed that I was really speaking two different ways Yeah. Until my son brought it to my attention. Yeah. The closeness to relatives, you know?
Andy Vantrease (01:09:22):
Wilmot Collins (01:09:23):
We’re very close knit family. We make sure that they will meet everybody. They, they know everybody and they know what’s expected. When you in an African society community or gathering, they know you respect your elders to the t mm-hmm. To the T. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And um, yeah. Those things will still care because we think those values will excel anywhere. I mean, you know, you can’t be respectful to your elders. Every community, every society aspire to do that, to have that. But the food, yeah. The food is major.
Andy Vantrease (01:10:01):
Let’s talk a bit about your role as mayor of Helena. I’m curious, it sounds like maybe Bliss had something to do with you.
Wilmot Collins (01:10:10):
Even, I’m telling you, even running something else.
Andy Vantrease (01:10:13):
I’ve had so many roles in public service.
Wilmot Collins (01:10:16):
Yeah, I mean…
Andy Vantrease (01:10:17):
Was it six months after you got here, you joined the Army?
Wilmot Collins (01:10:19):
I joined in Army, national Guard, and you know, and then I started serving on several boards. And I always told my kids I had a bachelor’s in political science and one day I would get into politics. One day I’ll get into politics.
Andy Vantrease (01:10:35):
So you’ve always wanted to.
Wilmot Collins (01:10:37):
I think I was more trying to impress my kids than me.
Andy Vantrease (01:10:41):
Wilmot Collins (01:10:42):
I was trying to impress them, saying, I’ll get into politics. I really didn’t think I would. But Bliss, my son, he, he’s one of those who will always challenge you. So I, I remember, well sitting home, Bliss left his campus in Missoula. He was at the U of M and he came home and said, dad, I think this year is your year. I said, for what? He said to run for public office. I said, whoa, slow down kid. I’m not qualified. I don’t know what to do and blah, blah. I just told him, no, I’m not doing that. He said, yes, you are qualified. I said, okay, need three qualifications that would make me win in an election. So he said, dad, you know everybody. I said, that’s not a qualification. He said, everybody know you. That’s the second <laugh>. And I said, what’s the third? He said, you’re educated. That’s what you need.
I said, I don’t even know the first step you want to do. He said, that’s why you have friends. Call your friends, talk to them. And if they say you’re not ready, I will not bother you. So I invited three couples over for dinner and we had dinner. After dinner, I said, guys, the reason I called you was to pick your brain and see where I could, I’m thinking about running for public office more specifically mayor. And then one of the ladies yelled and she explained, oh my God, this is fate. I said, what do you mean? She said, we’re just talking about you to ask you to run for Mayor <laugh>. And then I sent through his hand in the air.
Andy Vantrease (01:12:27):
Told you. <laugh>
Wilmot Collins (01:12:29):
I rest my case. So I said, okay, then what do I need to do? It’s the first convince your family if the thing is a good thing for you, then we’ll help you.
Andy Vantrease (01:12:39):
Wilmot Collins (01:12:40):
In my house, we vote on everything. My house is very democratic. We vote on everything. Oh, okay. I was almost sure the vote would be too, too. Maddie and Jamie will vote no. And Bliss and myself will vote. Yes. Okay. <laugh>. And so when I went to Maddie and told her about it, she said, keep me out of it. Cuz she didn’t like the limelight, she didn’t want to be involved, all that kind. Okay. She said, Nope, I’m not involved in it. Okay. So I said, no, you know what, you know the routine, we will vote. And she smart. She said, okay then who will be the tide breaker? I said, if it comes to that, we’ll talk about it. So we called my daughter. She was in Bahrain, we call her and I didn’t even realize Bliss had already done his homework.
Andy Vantrease (01:13:28):
He was already on the campaign.
Wilmot Collins (01:13:29):
That kid was like 18 years old. At 19 years old. He was already working.
Andy Vantrease (01:13:35):
Wilmot Collins (01:13:36):
So he had called Jamie and said, look, we, I know we will vote and please vote for dad to run from mayor. So Jamie promised him. And so then we called Jamie and Maddie explained to Jamie, here we’re calling to see whether you would vote for against your dad wants to run from mayor. So Mom, Dad, I’m 44. I think it’s a good idea. Dad, go <laugh>. So it was three to one. So she had to get on board. And then we started working, you know, I started working with those guys and they started showing me what I needed to do and this, that, and all the other.
Andy Vantrease (01:14:13):
Wilmot Collins (01:14:14):
It’s hard work, but you know, the, um, the end result I won. That means we worked hard enough. We got out there because I was running against a 16 year incumbent. Yeah. Who was loved by the community.
Andy Vantrease (01:14:27):
Wilmot Collins (01:14:27):
I like the guy. So it was not that he had done something, it was just something my son wanted me to get involved with. And I decided to go through with it.
Andy Vantrease (01:14:38):
I’m a huge believer in like, everything that you go through in life prepares you for the next step.
Wilmot Collins (01:14:45):
Andy Vantrease (01:14:45):
So reflecting back on everything that you’ve been through and that the story that you just told, how did that uniquely prepare you?
Wilmot Collins (01:14:57):
I think it made it easier because it was, as far as I’m concerned, as difficult as it was, it was fun. It was enjoyable. When they told me I had to go knock on doors and introduce myself to people, some doors were, uh, sometimes for me it was terrifying. But I said, I don’t have a gun to my head. I don’t think anybody would do that. I still remember one time I had about 10 more houses to go to. It was Maddie and I were go knocking on doors. Okay. And it was getting pretty dark and Maddie was scared. She said, remember we have stand your ground, so you go and knock on people doors at night. Anything happen. I said, I have 10 more. I got to finish this 10 more. With all of that. With this getting in little dark, people were still welcoming me in their homes. And so we completed our stack of stuff we had to do. But she thought about it. I was so comfortable about, it didn’t even cross my mind. So technically what I went through in Liberia compared to what I went through going through as mayor, I think it prepared me in the sense that it made running fun. That was not difficult at all. I’ve been through worse.
Andy Vantrease (01:16:17):
Wilmot Collins (01:16:17):
And I look forward to going through, I still remember my first door I knocked, this lady was up on her porch. You had to climb the stairs to go and she was sitting on her porch Saturday morning, it was about nine something and had a bed with my flyers and information about me in it. And I was leaving to doors if people are not there. And she had this wire fence around her front. And so I stood there. I didn’t know whether to open it. She was standing there having a coffee. So I didn’t know what to do. And so I just said, good morning, ma’am. And she responded, I’m not buying anything <laugh>. I said, well ma’am, I’m not selling anything. My name is Wilmot Collins and I’m running for mayor. She said, come on up. And I went up. She said, can I get you a cup of coffee? I said, ma’am, I had a coffee. I went through this, all this training that said two and a half minutes.
Andy Vantrease (01:17:12):
That’s how this, that was like your pitch. Yeah,
Wilmot Collins (01:17:13):
Yeah. Give it in two and a half minutes and be on your way. This lady went and she would not take no for an answer. <laugh>, she got me a cup of coffee, sit down, I sat down. You know, you try to be as polite as possible, but yet still you have to be in a position to say, I have to go. Yeah. I was pushing 10 minutes. So I said, ma’am, I have to go, but I appreciate you having me in your home. And um, she said, wait one minute, let me get my slippers home. <laugh>. So she went and got her slippers and she walked me to her neighbors and introduced me to the neighbors.
Andy Vantrease (01:17:51):
Wilmot Collins (01:17:52):
Andy Vantrease (01:17:53):
Wilmot Collins (01:17:53):
So that 10 minutes were well spent. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, she walked with me to the neighbor. She said, this neighbor is not here, he’s on vacation. So I said, okay, I’ll leave you flyer. She said, I’ll take it to him when they get, when they get back. So that 10 minute save me. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> as much because I went to about three or four different neighbors with her.
Andy Vantrease (01:18:13):
What was the biggest surprise to you about the way that people received the information or just, you know, welcomed you, received you?
Wilmot Collins (01:18:21):
Because I knew I was running against Mayor Smith. I really thought people would slam their doors.
Andy Vantrease (01:18:30):
Because he was 16 years and he was well liked and
Wilmot Collins (01:18:33):
Andy Vantrease (01:18:33):
No reason for anybody else.
Wilmot Collins (01:18:35):
I really thought people would slam their doors. So I went to each home. And not once that anybody slammed the door, as a matter of fact, people were, people were very forthcoming with me. One or two of them told me, oh no, I’m not voting for you. I’m voting for me or Smith, however, come on in, talk to me about you. And so even though they told me they weren’t voting for me, they still welcome me in at home. Yeah. And I was able to speak with them. Where do you see that? People, I mean, they just wanna move on. You know, some people just wanna say, Hey, I’m not voting for you, so there’s no need to listen
Andy Vantrease (01:19:14):
To. Well, I don’t need to know you any further. Right, right.
Wilmot Collins (01:19:16):
But no, just still listen. Just blew me away.
Andy Vantrease (01:19:21):
Is that something that you think is, is unique to Helena, perhaps?
Wilmot Collins (01:19:24):
Yes. Yeah. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> I think so. Yeah. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> They were really, really nice people.
Andy Vantrease (01:19:32):
What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from being mayor, you know, these past several years?
Wilmot Collins (01:19:39):
Just the whole process. You know, in the one lesson they taught me, never sell yourself short. I still remember one time in Liberia I wanted to run for a political office, but I was a senior in college. I remember my mom saying, change your last name. You know what that means? That if anybody’s coming after you, they’ll come after everybody with a name. Collins, they change your last name. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But this process has shown me that we’re more than what we think we are. It took my son to show me that I was more than what I was doing. You know, he saw more than I saw in myself. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so when I became mayor, you know, I know collaborating with others is very important to get anything done. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And I’m happy that our race, the municipal races in Helena, they’re nonpartisan. So you are working for everybody. You’re not working for no political party, you’re not working for no politicians. You’re just working for the people of Helena. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it’s been fun meeting with kids, meeting with…I met a little girl. Oh my God. You know, when I became mayor, I used to go out of the local restaurant and I used to call the WWW, Wednesdays with Wilmot.
Andy Vantrease (01:20:57):
Wilmot Collins (01:20:57):
People who come to the restaurant and meet me and ask questions. People who couldn’t make our commission meetings would come there to ask question. And I still remember this little girl. Her mom was there with some friends and I met with the friends and I was walking to another family to meet with them when I heard this little voice say, excuse me. So I stopped. She said, my name is Charlotte and I’m five. I said, hello Charlotte. I’m Mayor Collins. I’m an adult. What can I do for you? And she looked at me top to bottom. She did it twice. She said, would you be my show and tell? I said, sure, Charlotte, I’ll be your show and tell. Kids are smarter than you think. So when I said, sure, I’ll be your sure and tell, I started to walk away. And she yelled out, you don’t know my school. How can you be my show tell you don’t know my school.
Andy Vantrease (01:21:56):
She’s like, we need some contact information here,
Wilmot Collins (01:21:59):
<laugh>. And so I went back to her. I said, okay, Charlotte, what’s your school? She said, I go to Bloom Montissori. And you have to be there Monday at 10 o’clock.
Andy Vantrease (01:22:09):
And you showed up.
Wilmot Collins (01:22:10):
I showed up Monday. I spoke to those kids for 10 minutes on the floor talking about animals and pets. Uhhuh, hey, they enjoy. We took pictures. It was fun for them. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that’s the fun part of the job. Yeah. But you can interact with the little, the the, the youngest constituents.
Andy Vantrease (01:22:27):
Last question Willmot, I always ask where you are drawing your hope from? Like, what are you excited about for waking up every day? What are you excited about for future?
Wilmot Collins (01:22:42):
As mayor, I wake up knowing that I am making a difference, a wake of knowing that I’ve made a difference. You know? And believe me, I wish we could do more.
Andy Vantrease (01:22:57):
Wilmot Collins (01:22:58):
I sincere, which we could. We as a community could do more. Great people here volunteering, great people sending money to the various organizations that help. We need everybody to the table, everybody to the table. And that’s how we’ll be able to come back, that’s how we’ll be able to, um, make a positive impact. Because the city can’t do it alone. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, no way.
Andy Vantrease (01:23:37):
Wilmot Collins, what an incredible story of resilience and perseverance. His existence in the world is evidence that the human spirit can withstand more than we ever thought possible. And while I hate that, stories of strength and resilience are often talked about after brutality and war, I am truly amazed what this man has been through and what he’s overcome and has the ability to share so openly with us today. Conversations like this, honest, open-hearted, and tender. This is how I believe we can build stronger communities when we visit with each other, listen to what we’ve been through, look into each other’s eyes and cry together. Feel the heartbreak and the pain, and celebrate the triumph and the rebuilding that we’re all doing individually, and that we’re all doing collectively every moment. It’s been almost 30 years since Willmot came to Helena, Montana and the gratitude he has for life is palpable and contagious.
Connecting with him gave me a hell of a lot of perspective to stop sweating the small things that I can get all nodded up about that life is a gift, not something to wish away and take for granted. For more information, visit wilmotcollins.com. And if you’re in the Helena area, consider getting to know him a little bit more before this year’s upcoming election.
A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.
This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day.