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George W. Wilbanks, East County Times’ founder, dies at 85

by Marge Neal, East County Times (https://eastcountytimesonline.com/current-news)

George Washington Wilbanks III, a successful eastern Baltimore County businessman whose ventures ranged from carpet manufacturing, sales and distribution to newspaper publishing, died of kidney failure on Feb. 28. He was 85.

Mr. Wilbanks was the owner and founding publisher of the East County Times.

Born May 1, 1932, in the small rural town of Ramhurst, Ga., Mr. Wilbanks was the son of George W. Wilbanks Jr. and Julie Ledford Wilbanks. He was raised on the family farm, growing vegetables and picking cotton. He graduated from Murray County High School and attended Young Harris College, both in Georgia.

Mr. Wilbanks married his sweetheart and the love of his life, the former Angela Geraldine “Geri” Hunter, in 1951.

Shortly after his wedding, Mr. Wilbanks received a notice to report to the Army Induction Center in Georgia to be examined for military service, according to “Memoirs of a Dreamer,” his autobiography.

In Baltimore at the time for the Christmas holiday, he instead went to a local U.S. Air Force recruiting office and joined that military branch. He served in Japan and France in the 1950s and ‘60s on active duty and as a reservist, according to family members.

After moving to Baltimore, Mr. Wilbanks worked in the carpet business and eventually partnered with Ray Jordan in opening RJ Carpet Distributors Inc. Mr. Wilbanks retired after a 38-year career in the carpet business, but not before embarking on a completely different business adventure.

He was recruited to invest in a group looking to expand the scope of The Herald, a community paper centered in Perry Hall. The investment group was looking to start satellite editions, and Mr. Wilbanks enthusiastically became involved in the Essex effort.

“Me becoming a publisher of a newspaper is about as remote as me becoming the governor of Maryland,” he wrote in his book.

It was not long before the Essex publication was enjoying great success, which Mr. Wilbanks credited to the hiring of newspaper professionals who knew what they were doing. When the unwitting newspaper publisher was given the opportunity to buy the assets of the Essex office, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I did and I have not looked back,” he wrote in his book. The result was the Essex Times, which later was renamed the East County Times to better reflect its coverage area after growing to include communities from Dundalk and Edgemere to Perry Hall and Parkville.

Angie Hess, the paper’s art director, was one of three original employees brought on board to launch the new publication in 1995. She credits Mr. Wilbanks’ passion for the mission and the community it served for making the paper the success it was.

“He had a passion for the paper, a passion for the community and a passion for the people of the community,” Hess said of the publisher. “He believed the community deserved a different voice and he was determined to provide that voice.”

Hess also said Mr. Wilbanks set the paper up for success by allowing employees to do their jobs.

“He was an awesome boss; he never hung over your head,” she said. “He knew you knew what to do and he expected you to just do it.”

Friends and associates of Mr. Wilbanks speak of two traits that he carried throughout his life - his strong and abiding faith in Jesus Christ and his wicked sense of humor.

“I was very close to George and I could sit and listen to him talk for hours and hours,” said Del. Ric Metzgar, a friend of more than 25 years. “I found him to be a very spiritual man and he proudly talked of his love for his savior.”

Mr. Wilbanks regularly attended his childhood church and then fell away from organized religion for a time, according to his autobiography.

One day, while standing on the pier at his waterfront home on the Back River peninsula, Mr. Wilbanks experienced an epiphany of sorts and told his wife they would go to church the following Sunday.

It was August 1979, and the couple chose Back River United Methodist Church because of its proximity to their home.

“I remember him telling me that he told Geri they would sit on the back pew and if they didn’t like the church, they would get up and leave,” Metzgar recalled with a laugh.

It was an anecdote Mr. Wilbanks shared in his book, and, as it turned out, there was no need to sneak out that first day; the church took on an important role in the couple’s lives, with Mr. Wilbanks holding many leadership and committee positions over the years.

In a public show of his faith, Mr. Wilbanks dedicated space on the front page of each weekly edition of the Times for a Bible Verse of the Week, and the Christmas and Easter week editions traditionally have the entire front page devoted to the birth and resurrection, respectively, of Jesus Christ.

As steady as Mr. Wilbanks was in his devotion to his faith and his love for his family, he was well-known for a witty sense of humor and a fascination with the scantily-clad servers of a certain restaurant chain.

“He always said he wanted Hooters girls for his pallbearers,” Metzgar said with a laugh. “And he would have arranged it if he could, but I think Miss Geri would have put a stop to that.”

Mr. Wilbanks was even more descriptive in expressing his funeral preferences.

“I tell everyone that when I die, I want 12 bawling and squalling women, six at the head of the casket and six at the foot, playing those tear-jerking country gospel songs,” he wrote in his book.

Metzgar said he will “deeply, deeply” miss the man he considered a mentor, a brother in Christ and a community leader.

“I visited with him in the hospital not long ago and it was a very memorable last talk,” Metzgar said. “I told him I loved him and that he had been a very good mentor to me politically, and he said, ‘Well, son, you’ve been a mentor to me because you stood by your faith.’ I’ll carry that with me forever and my heart and prayers go out for Geri and the family.”

Metzgar said he will miss the personal prayer sessions he and Mr. Wilbanks shared and the sense of humor that lightened moments and put people at ease.

“And I believe there will be an empty chair at Essex Day this year,” he said.

Outside of his church and businesses, Mr. Wilbanks was involved in many facets of community service. He served as a senator and president of the local JayCees; was a longtime member of the Eastern Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce and served as president from 1994-96; and was the organizer of several Essex Day festivals. He also managed the campaign office for U.S. Senator Helen Delich Bentley.

In his spare time, Mr. Wilbanks loved a good Western movie, especially those starring John Wayne, enjoyed bluegrass and southern gospel music and loved baseball, according to family members. He played left field while in high school and later for many organized community leagues. He especially loved the Baltimore Orioles and was privileged to know many of the players over the years.

Mr. Wilbanks is survived by his wife and sweetheart of 67 years, Angela G.H. “Geri“ Wilbanks; his daughter, Nancy Morales of Perry Hall; son David H. Wilbanks (Donna) of Panama City Beach, Fla.; four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and a host of extended family members, including many loved nieces and nephews.

In addition to his parents, Mr. Wilbanks was preceded in death by sisters Annie Lou Baggett, Aileen M. Baggett, Ethel Wilbanks and Mary Wilbanks, and brothers Jim, Ed, Marvin and Johnny Wilbanks.

The funeral service was held Monday, March 5, at Back River United Methodist Church, followed by interment at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

The family asks that those who desire make memorial contributions to Back River United Methodist Church, 544 Back River Neck Road, Essex, MD 21221, or the American Diabetes Association, 800 Wyman Park Drive, Suite 110, Baltimore, MD 21211.

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