Jim Wilkerson and his little dog, Lucky, are celebrities in Freeburg.
Every morning, the 81-year-old man walks from Deerfield Court mobile home park to Tom’s Market, taking baby steps and pushing Lucky in a pale-pink pet stroller.
“He’s the best-known dog in town,” Jim said.
The walk is about a mile and a half round-trip, mostly along State Street (Illinois 15). Many drivers honk or wave. Jim waves back, but only if he hears a car horn because he’s legally blind.
“It puts a smile on your face, no matter what kind of mood you’re in,” said Dalyce Brawley, 54, of New Athens, who sees the pair when she’s passing through on her way to Belleville.
Lucky used to walk the route, but the 12-year-old Miniature Pinscher would get tired, forcing Jim to carry him.
That heart-tugging sight prompted local residents Kim and Gary Kemper to give Jim the stroller last fall. They bought it for their black pug, Puggy, but she didn’t like it.
“She’s a little chubby,” said Kim, 51, who works in a Belleville doctor’s office. “She didn’t like being confined in the stroller, so she would keep trying to jump out.”
Kim thought the stroller would help stabilize Jim, who wasn’t all that steady, especially when carrying Lucky and a water bottle.
“The first thing he said was, ‘What can I pay you for this?’” she said. “And we said, ‘Nothing. Puggy doesn’t use it. We would like you to have it.’ And he said, ‘God bless you. You’ll both be my friends forever.’
“I let him know the stroller was pink since Lucky is a boy,” Kim added. “But he said, ‘That’s OK.’ He didn’t mind.”
Today, Lucky rides like a king in the stroller. He stands up and wags his tail if he sees something interesting but generally stays put until time for a bathroom break.
“It’s got a little screen,” Jim said. “I pull it down when it gets hot.”
Jim’s son, Eric Wilkerson, drinks coffee at McDonald’s on State Street, and he hears people talking about the elderly man with the baby carriage who waves at everyone. No doubt some think he’s crazy.
But Eric is just happy his father is staying active and enjoying himself.
“Sometimes I’m concerned that he’ll walk in front of a car, but he and I both believe Jesus is going to protect him,” said Eric, 56, who cooks at Cracker Barrel in Shiloh.
“I never have to worry about him. If it starts raining, people will pick him up and bring him home.”
On the road since childhood
Jim grew up in a poor family in Bloomington, Ind. His single mother was extremely religious and took the kids to pentecostal services four times a week.
Jim was the first in his family to graduate from high school in 1954. He competed at the state tournament while captain of the track team and co-captain of the cross-country team.
“We never had a car,” he said. “I walked two miles to high school and two miles home, so I’ve been walking and running a long time.”
As an adult, Jim worked in shipping and receiving and managed a gas station, ending up in Fort Wayne, Ind. He retired 20 years ago to care for his second wife, Alline, who died of heart failure in 1999.
“She wanted to go back home (to Edgar Springs, Mo.),” he said. “And I said, ‘Honey, anything you want to do, we’ll do.’”
Jim has five children, 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
He’s been living with son Eric and daughter-in-law Rhonda in Freeburg for four years. Before that, he lived with Jim Jr. in Belleville.
Jim Sr. doesn’t drive because of his vision problems, which doctors say can’t be corrected. The daily trek to Tom’s Market allows him to socialize and get exercise.
Sometimes I’m concerned that he’ll walk in front of a car, but he and I both believe Jesus is going to protect him.
Eric Wilkerson on his father, Jim, who is legally blind
“I’m in better health than I was 10 years ago,” he said, noting that he quit smoking and drinking, and his only medication is a cholesterol pill. “I was walking back then, but not as much as I am now.”
It was Jim’s brother, Marvin, who gave him Lucky in 2004. Marvin still has mother Sammy, a full-bred Miniature Pinscher.
Seven years ago, Lucky’s left back leg was run over by a car, and he had to wear a cast. But the leg healed perfectly, prompting Jim to nickname him “Lucky Butt.”
Lucky has sweaters to wear in cold weather, but he doesn’t like them. He eats half a hot dog each day with his regular pet food.
“He’s never got higher than 7 pounds, 7 ounces, and he’s never got lower than 7 pounds, 4 ounces,” Jim said. “So I’m exercising and feeding him right.”
Community looks out for him
Jim passes restaurants, churches, banks and other businesses on his walk, and it seems everyone has a friendly “Good morning!”
Sometimes he braves crossing the busy three-lane highway to visit his friends at Shampoodles, a dog-grooming shop where Lucky gets his toenails clipped.
“I go halfway across, and then I stop before I go the rest of the way,” Jim said. “It ain’t safe, but I do it.”
When dog bather Katie Kaiser, 25, of Freeburg, sees him coming in his St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap, she jumps up and opens the door. He locks the stroller brake before lifting out Lucky.
“(Jim is) a legend,” said owner-groomer Kelli Sharf-Sternau, 35, of Swansea. “He makes everybody so happy.”
Jim also has friends at Citizens Community Bank, where employees worry about his safety but get their spirits lifted when he waves through the drive-up window.
On a recent weekday, Jim and Lucky went into the bank lobby. Teller Vicky Haar, 50, of New Memphis, came out from behind the counter with a box of dog biscuits.
“Can he have a cookie?” she asked. “Sure, he can,” Jim replied.
Jim doubles as weatherman for the bank employees. The only time he stays home is when it’s bitterly cold, with temperatures down in the teens.
“We always know when it’s going to be a hot day because he’s out early,” said teller Beth Carroll, 38, of Collinsville.
At Tom’s Market, Jim and Lucky take a break. Jim sits on a bench out front, pours Lucky some water in a small plastic cup, greets customers and allows them to pet Lucky.
“(Jim) is totally adorable,” said customer Brandi Frantz, 38, of Freeburg. “If you honk at him, he’ll wave at you. He’s just a sweetheart.”
When Jim isn’t out walking, he likes to watch Cardinals games and CNN news, but he has to sit really close to the TV in his bedroom.
Lucky curls up on his lap during the day and crawls under his covers at night. Jim need only ask for a kiss to get the dog to lick his face with his tiny tongue.
Kim, who gave Jim the stroller, still sees the pair around town, and it makes her feel good.
“It warms my heart that he enjoys it every day,” she said. “I think it also gets the attention of the community even more. We all look out for him.”