Lee Barton took a patch of sod from outside Wilson Lumber, brought it inside, put it on the floor of the conference room and told the employee — someone who had left the company and then returned — “Next time you think there’s greener grass somewhere else, go plant that in your back yard and know it came from Wilson.”
Lee knew the grass wasn’t greener anywhere else. How? Because Lee looked other places for a business that would treat him like family, but he never found what he was searching for. Wilson Lumber hired him in 2006 after his wife, Sally, an interior designer, introduced him to one of the owners.
For a few years, he handled accounts at Wilson Lumber, but then his oldest daughter got married and gave him that one thing that can draw anyone away from a job they love: grandkids.
Then his youngest daughter moved to Charleston, South Carolina, soon followed by his oldest daughter, her husband and her kids. The trip up I-20 was an easy drive, but at just over eight hours, it took a lot out of Lee and Sally to be able to go up and see those babies.
Still, Lee and Sally were rooted in Alabama. Would it ever be possible to see their grandkids more often? Soon enough, they’d find out.
Welcome to Atlanta
The way recruiters work is companies pay a recruiter to find employees who meet certain requirements, and the first rule of recruiting is this: Money isn’t everything. If you want a prospective employee to relocate, he or she will have to be motivated by something other than money. So when a recruiter called Lee, asking him if he would be interested in a job in Atlanta, he considered it.
Before coming to Huntsville, Lee and Sally lived in Atlanta for 13 years. Lee’s brothers were still in the area. Even better, moving to Atlanta would put them almost five hours closer to their daughters. And their grand babies.
It was an interesting proposition, but it would mean leaving the family Lee knew at Wilson Lumber. It would also mean leaving his adult son, Jay, in Huntsville. However, before any decision could be made, Lee would have to get the go-ahead from Sally. The two have been married for 36 years, and they function as a team in any decision.
“Sally and I talked about it,” Lee said. “We didn’t want to leave Huntsville, and we didn’t want to leave Wilson Lumber, but the grandchildren and future grandchildren were eight hours away. … While we weren’t excited about it, it was an opportunity.”
Lee and Sally were also empty nesters for the first time, still living in a house Lee describes as “much too big for us.” They decided to sell their house, get an apartment in Atlanta and buy a house in Charleston to retire to.
The lumber company in Atlanta hired Lee.
It was exciting for Lee to be able to see their daughters and grandchildren more often, but it was heartbreaking to leave Wilson Lumber. Throughout the process, he was open with Russ Wilson, one of the Wilson Lumber owners, making sure they knew he was interviewing and the reasons why.
“(Russ’) comment to me was, ‘If this wasn’t for your grandchildren, I’d be mad at you … but I know how important family is to you,” Lee said.
Wilson Lumber is a third-generation family business. Everything they do is centered on their love for Jesus and their love for their family. If any boss would understand the appeal of being closer to family, Lee knew it would be the men at Wilson Lumber.
In fact, they actually set up some more interviews for Lee to make sure he had the best job as close as possible to his daughters.
Lee moved to Atlanta while Sally stayed in Huntsville, waiting for their house to sell. He came home on weekends and returned to work Monday through Friday. It was hard, but they thought it would be worth it once they were together.
On Independence Day weekend 2016, Lee and Sally went to Charleston to celebrate their youngest daughter’s engagement and stopped at their golf club in Atlanta for a party on the way back. The next morning, July 5, they got the worst phone call any parent could ever get.
Jay, their son, had died of an overdose.
Jay struggled with drugs most of his adult life. After three stints in rehab, they thought he was finally kicking the addiction. He was engaged, had a great job, and everyone thought he was doing better.
Still, something — they don’t know what — triggered Jay’s addiction again. He overdosed on a combination of cocaine laced with fentanyl, a deadly concoction that has become more common. Lee and Sally learned their only son, the one with Paul-Newman-blue eyes, the one who was so loved by people that when he worked at a moving company, customers took his photo so they could ask for him the next time, had died instantly.
Lee had talked to his son on the phone the night before he died. The last words he told his son were, “I love you.”
After Jay’s death, Sally was still in Huntsville with the unsold house, and Lee was in Atlanta working five days a week.
Something had to give.
Getting Back, Giving Back
When something awful happens, you just want to be with family. Whether it’s your spouse, parents or even an adopted family at your job, you just want to be surrounded by people who know you. That’s how it was for Lee.
He called the guys at Wilson Lumber to ask for his job back, and they welcomed him with open arms.
“Without exaggeration, and without being trite about it, I walked in the door, and it was like I had never left,” Lee said. “I can’t think of an employee, including the big burly … guys up on the lumber counter, that didn’t come around and hug me.”
Lee isn’t the only employee to leave and return. It actually happens fairly often because employees at all levels find out that other bosses won’t treat them as well.
“They come back because there’s a genuine feeling of warmth and concern,” Lee said.
The grieving process for Lee and Sally will never end, but the employees at Wilson Lumber have made it a little easier to cope. Without that support, they would never be able to pursue their newfound passion outside of work — spreading the word about the opioid crisis.
These teens and adults come from good homes, good families and good schools, and the Bartons are working to reduce the stigma surrounding drug addiction so more parents will acknowledge it is happening.
The Barton’s next big project is the Discovery Room in Memory of Jay Barton, a trailer designed to look like a teenager’s room that will show parents where teens are likely to hide drugs and drug paraphernalia.
“You look for some worth out of our tragedy,” Lee said. “If that worth is that we help some people get help or learn how to ask for help or learn how to reach out to someone to offer help, then we can find … a little bit of something.”
Still, none of this would be possible if they didn’t have such a strong support system at Wilson Lumber. Recently the Bartons had a hard weekend handling the grief, so the employees gathered around Lee at the weekly prayer meeting to ask God for peace.
“The Wilsons talk about building a successful company by upholding Christlike principals,” Lee said. “There’s lots of companies that have company missions and mission statements; few of them live it.”
If you’re building a home or doing home remodeling, we hope you’ll check out Wilson Lumber. Think how extra gratifying it will be knowing your great deal on lumber or doors supports a small, family-like, family-owned business.
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