It seemed like a feel-good story had run its course.
Then surprises started arriving in the mail.
La Verne Ford Wimberly, an 82-year-old retired Tulsa Public Schools administrator, gained global recognition and acclaim in March because she was at the center of a story-gone-viral: She dressed in her Sunday best for a year’s worth of Metropolitan Baptist Church services even though she was watching services from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each Sunday brought a new combination of hats and apparel. Wimberly snapped selfies of herself in each ensemble and posted photos on Facebook along with words intended to lift up others.
The reach of those posts exploded beyond Wimberly’s circle of 400-plus Facebook friends after she was interviewed by Kim Jackson of television station KTUL. Media outlets worldwide piggybacked on the KTUL segment or sought out Wimberly for interviews. Among highlights: Wimberly appeared on “Today” and was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper for “Anderson Cooper Full Circle.” On Easter Sunday, she was the subject of a front-page story in the Washington Post.
The Washington Post story attracted the attention of former “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather, who tweeted a story link and this comment to his 2.1 million followers: “I loved this Easter story, so I wanted to share it with you. More than the impeccable and colorful outfits (not to mention the hats!), it’s Ms. Wimberly’s eyes and smiles that inspire.”
Wimberly is appreciative that someone she considers one of the greatest newscasters of all time would say something complimentary about her. When it was suggested to Wimberly during a recent phone interview that she has become a “star,” she replied with laughter and this: “I wouldn’t go that far, but let me say it this way. I have had my 15 minutes of fame.”
Fame is fleeting, but gifts keep arriving.
Because Wimberly’s story touched readers and viewers, random folks are sending her gifts, mostly through her church. Someone in California sent a necklace. People in Illinois and New Hampshire sent hats. Jen Hager of Montclair, N.J., sent a jacket decorated with painted replicas of Wimberly wearing her Sunday hats.
“Wasn’t that fantastic?” Wimberly said. “I love it. I haven’t really worn it out yet, because I just really don’t want to advertise myself, but certainly I will be wearing it. In fact one of my Facebook friends asked me to let him wear it and he would be my billboard.”
A retired teacher from Maryland used Wimberly’s dressed-for-church photos to create a match-the-cards memory game and sent the game to Wimberly. The box has Wimberly’s picture on it along with quotes from some of her interviews.
Wimberly received cards from overseas and has been gifted with dress ensembles, a shawl and money. A couple from New York sent $50. A woman from Chicago mailed a $50 check.
“The couple that sent me $50 from New York said (my story) just made them smile all day,” Wimberly said. “They just loved it and wanted to do something.”
Wimberly said she is overwhelmed and amazed by the gifts. She said she has seen many wonderful articles throughout her life, but those articles never promoted her to reach out to strangers or send gifts. She drew this conclusion: “People still are kind. Even though I go and hear about negative things, there are still so many kind people in the world and it’s amazing that they would take their own time and their own resources to acknowledge me and send me something and they don’t even know me. They have no idea who I am and I have no idea who they are, but it’s just the kindness of people in America that is just really quite revealing to me.”
Not all the gifts came from strangers. Childhood friend Marilyn Britton Mayes of Chicago and her son, Ernie, recorded some of her media interviews and sent her a DVD compilation.
You probably haven’t seen or heard the last of Wimberly. An Emmy-winning videographer saw the Washington Post story and came to Tulsa for the purpose of including Wimberly in a documentary about a different topic. Wimberly said someone from New York was scheduled to come to Tulsa this week to have her on a podcast.
None of this would have happened if Wimberly had declined the initial interview request. She almost said “no,” but consented because of familiarity with Jackson (they go to the same church) and because they could talk via Zoom.
“I usually don’t like giving first-person or face-to-face interviews because of my shyness,” Wimberly said. “But since it was going to be over Zoom, I thought ‘I will be in my own home and it will be no problem at all,’ so I did it.”
That was about 10 interviews ago, so you figure Wimberly got over her shyness.
“Just like when I was at work, I never did want to be on TV or out in front,” she said. “But I knew that was my job, so I just had to push through and do what needed to be done.”
As an educator, Wimberly was influencing others long before she went viral. Tina Ezell Johnson said daughter-in-law Dr. Ebony Johnson, Chief Learning Officer at Tulsa Public Schools, was inspired by Wimberly because she rose to a high TPS position, at one point serving as TPS’ interim superintendent.
“We both love her contribution and commitment to education over the years,” Tina Ezell Johnson said. “I also share her love for hats and do not feel completely dressed to worship without a ‘crown of glory!’”
In 2011, Wimberly was part of an inaugural 10-person class selected for the Oklahoma African-American Educators Hall of Fame.