The life of Smiley Wiley: Friends gather to remember Lebanon man’s infectious vibrancy

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

Wiley W. Sims, Jr., a longtime resident of Lebanon and active Special Olympics participant, died Friday, Jan. 6, at age 76.
“Smiley Wiley,” as he was affectionately called by many, could often be seen in his yellow reflective vest, riding his bicycle around town and regularly visiting group homes where his friends lived.
“He’s so well-known,” friend Julianna Foubert said. “He’s been in Lebanon for a very long time. He rode his bike on a daily basis. He would stop and he was always so friendly and nice. If somebody waved to him, he’d wave back and smile. That smile was infectious. You can’t help but feel good when you talk to Wiley.”

ASTOR BRIAN GOSSER speaks to a room of friends at a memorial service held for Wiley Sims Jan. 28 at Southside Church of Christ, one of Sims’ favorite places to be. Photo by Sarah Brown

His essence could be felt at a memorial held Jan. 28 in his honor at Southside Church of Christ. Songs such as “Bring Me Sunshine” (as performed by Willie Nelson), “What a Wonderful World” (Louis Armstrong) and “I’ll Fly Away” (Alison Krauss) played over a slideshow featuring images of Sims bearing his trademark smile and participating with friends in his favorite activities.
Sims was born the eldest of three brothers on March 21, 1946, in Portland. According to Foubert, who spoke with one of those brothers, Sims lived for about 15 years at the Fairview Training Center in Salem before coming to Lebanon in the late 1960s. (Fairview was a state-run facility for people with developmental disabilities that was shuttered in 2000 after nearly 100 years of operation.)
“He was one of the first ones they were releasing when they were trying to close down institutionalized living,” friend Patty Crenshaw said.
Crenshaw met Sims when he first moved to town. She was about 12 years old at the time. Some 50-plus years later, Crenshaw can be found working with adults with developmental disabilities and as a Sunday school teacher at Southside, where Sims attended church.
“He was real quiet, always nice, never said anything bad about anybody,” she said. “If somebody did something that maybe might have hurt him, you never heard about it.”

A clipping from a local newspaper reveals Sims’ handmade flag.

Like Crenshaw, Foubert remembers first meeting Sims when she was young, 14 years old. On the wall of a group home Sims often visited, Foubert spotted a large crocheted United States flag and learned that he had made it. She thought it was the “coolest thing.” And, like Crenshaw, Foubert works with people who have developmental disabilities.
Sims appeared to have led a very full life. Since 1984, he’d been involved with the Special Olympics, taking part in such events as walk-racing, shotput, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and bowling.
“He loved bowling, and he was really good at it,” Foubert said. “He would get strikes all the time and then he would be all excited and tell a buddy he got a strike.”
Sims earned many honors through Special Olympics, including Athlete of the Year.
When he visited friends, he talked about his events and medals, Foubert said. Whether it was first- or sixth-place, the distinctions were all the same to him and he was gracious about whatever he earned. Unlike most people who respond to honors based on a first-place goal, Sims instead looked at where he placed from the last prize.
“He would say, ‘I didn’t get eighth, I didn’t get seventh, I didn’t get sixth, I didn’t get fifth, but I got fourth!’,” Foubert said. “He’d be all excited. It didn’t matter if he got eighth or first.”
Sims would also talk about his trips, vacations and sports.
“And if you interrupted him, he might start all over,” she said.

Contributed photo

Many at the memorial service who knew Sims through the Special Olympics shared stories of their friend. Tina Walters said that when she was learning how to ski, Sims would check on her “like a big brother or best friend” to see how she was coming along.
“For all the years that he skied, you could never get him to do anything but a snowplow,” winter coach Michael Clancey said before relating another favorite memory of Sims during a Mt. Bachelor trip.
“All of a sudden, I see Wiley coming down the hill, and he’s just waving his arms, saying, ‘Out of my way; I can’t stop!’”
Susie Otta talked about watching a Special Olympics race during which somebody fell while competing and Sims stopped to help.
Charlotte Wiebe told what appeared to be a story of Sims in rare form, when he was disqualified for running during a walk race. Apparently, she said, he wasn’t happy that someone was in front of him, and he fumed about his disqualification for the rest of the day.
Other activities Sims enjoyed included whitewater rafting, visiting local and state fairs, and vacations at Disney World, Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. However, it was evident that he also enjoyed attending church.
“He loved Jesus,” Foubert said. “It was very important to him. He enjoyed talking about Jesus and singing hymns in his Sunday School class.”
His Sunday school friends performed his favorite songs during the memorial, simple songs about God’s love, like “God’s Love is Like a Circle” and “Jesus Loves the Little Ones Like Me.”

A clipping from a local paper shows Sims working at Tin Star Restaurant.

Outside of his other activities, Sims worked at McDonald’s for 20 years. Prior to that, he was employed at the Tin Star Restaurant and took other jobs through Lebanon’s Willamette Valley Rehabilitation Center.
“Wiley was the happiest person,” Foubert said. “All the years that I’ve known him and talked to him, he was never upset. He just had a real kind spirit. He was always smiling. You never saw him without a smile. He always had a positive story to tell you about something that happened in his life. His stories were always happy.”
During the memorial service, Pastor Brian Gosser led a prayer, telling God of the imprint Sims left on peoples’ hearts, stating that his “infectious smile and spirit” would be missed.
“We acknowledge the goodness we see in Wiley, the love that we see in his life, flowed from you first,” he prayed. “So we accept the love that you gave to us through Wiley. May we leave an imprint on this world like Wiley had.”
Gosser asked people to honor Sims by sharing a smile with someone, adding that there were people in a community who are the community.
“He was one of those,” he said. “He was Lebanon, in a sense.”

Sitting at a memorial service for Wiley Sims, it becomes apparent that Lebanon just lost a ray of sunshine. There’s that saying about not knowing what you had until it’s gone. For those who didn’t know Sims, that just may be the case.
I would often see Wiley ride his bike around town and encountered him a handful of times when I worked as a grocery store checker. But he was a man of few words unless, apparently, you were his friend. I knew so little about this man with the smile, but I learned too late that I wish I’d known him.
While speaking to people who knew him for 50 years and hearing stories about him at a memorial service, I felt I lost an opportunity to be touched by a person who lived a full but simple life. Sure, I would not have been able to hold conversations with him on matters that interested me, but I believe I would have walked away with a little bit of light in my heart, and he would have probably taken my name to his prayer group at Sunday school.
I believe God knew and loved Wiley very much and I would have been honored for Wiley to speak my name to God. His Sunday school teacher said when they asked for names for the prayer list, Wiley always spoke up for those he’d encountered that week.
Those of you out there who gave Wiley cans or spoke with him while he was out and about, he appreciated you and brought you up during prayer time. I think you should know that. We should all remember that it’s the little things, the brief encounters that make a difference in a person’s life.
Whether he was whitewater rafting, visiting Disney World, winning eighth place in some sport or hobby, or talking to a stranger on the street, I believe his heart was full of gratitude. That’s what I learned about “Smiley Wiley” as I worked on this story. And like Pastor Brian Gosser said, I hope we will all share a smile with someone today in his honor.
– Sarah Brown