Bettendorf resident Max Wilson slept in later than usual on Jan. 17, the morning his home of 65 years caught fire.
Waking to the smell of smoke, he grabbed his eyeglasses and his landline phone before investigating any further.
“I opened the door to the garage and it almost knocked me down,” Wilson recalled Friday, referring to his collision with combustion. Still gripping his portable telephone, he escaped his burning split-level home at 1520 Lincoln Road, wearing nothing but his pajamas. He left behind any form of footwear, his false teeth and rooms filled with special belongings.
“You can imagine how many keepsakes we had in that house,” said Wilson, a World War II veteran who turned 95 this week. “I lost everything.”
Authorities determined a space heater in the garage sparked the fire about 7:45 a.m.
On the opposite side of Lincoln Road that morning, 8-year-old Jacob Bever, a third-grade student at Mark Twain Elementary School, 1620 Lincoln Road, noticed the fire from the passenger seat of his mother’s vehicle. They parked there to while away a few minutes after dropping off Jacob’s older sister at Bettendorf Middle School.
“I saw giant flames and a humongous cloud of smoke,” said Jacob, whose mother, Bria, quickly sprang into action. She urged Wilson’s neighbor to the east on Broadview Drive, directly across the roadway from Mark Twain, to call 911.
Marie Winder, who was scraping snow from her vehicle’s windshield at the time, forwarded the message to her family inside while she and Bria helped Wilson walk off his property.
“We were all shocked,” said Winder, who credited Jacob’s awareness at the scene. Her family set up the "Max Wilson Fire Fund" through GoFundMe and Bettendorf Presbyterian Church.
“That’s what neighbors do,” Winder continued. "He's (Wilson) a good man."
In response to it all, students at Mark Twain have stepped up in an amazing fashion, principal Caroline Olson said.
The school of almost 300 students launched a change drive last month that since has garnered more than $2,100 in donations. Students in every classroom also created personal birthday cards for Wilson, who has enjoyed every single one. And this past week, students completed a military-themed, hand-tied fleece blanket for Wilson to bring to his new home.
"We talk a lot about being a caring community and how we can be kind to others," Olson said, "and I think this is an opportunity for our students to put that into action."
Students will present their gifts to Wilson during an assembly scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 22, at the school.
"I've got real good people helping me, and I really need them," said Wilson, whose wife of almost 60 years, Vernelle, died last May.
Wilson grew up on a farm in Jackson County between the towns of Maquoketa and Dubuque. After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and during World War II, he flew a B-17 Flying Fortress. The bomber pilot said he completed 43 missions, dropping more than 240,000 pounds of explosives over five European countries.
Wilson this week received a new set of lower dentures, replacing the ones that were lost in the fire. He may transition soon to The Fountains Senior Living Community in Bettendorf. In the meantime, he is worried about covering the costs of his own funeral service because he does not have children.
"My wife is over at the Rock Island Arsenal," Wilson said, "and I'm going to join her."