ZEBULON — Barrie Davis will tell you he lost as good a friend as he had in town when Wilbur Thurston Debnam Sr. died peacefully at his home on Thursday.
The two had a lot in common.
They met at age 5 and shared the same classroom through 11 years of school while growing up in Zebulon. Both were pilots in World War II and later owned businesses in town. They were members of the same Sunday school class, and both were 89 years old at the time of Debnam’s death.
“In the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, we were the same height and same weight,” Davis said. “Then he started getting a lot taller and better-looking.”
Davis described Debnam as a smart man – one of the nicest people he has ever known.
“He just didn’t complain about anything,” Davis said. “I just couldn’t find any fault with him, which is unusual.”
Debnam, the son of Mallie Thurston Debnam and Lela Ann Weathersby Debnam, was born March 29, 1924.
Nineteen years later, he married his wife of 69 years, Dorothy “Dot” Herndon Horton Debnam. The very next day, as Davis recalls, Debnam was flown out in an airplane to serve in the 449th Bomber Group and as a B24 bomber pilot.
When his service ended, Debnam returned to the area and completed a degree in textiles from N.C. State University. He and his brother, James Debnam, later took over the family business, Debnam Hardware, founded by their father in 1918.
“He was a very honest person, very kind, and a very good manager,” said Jim Debnam, Wilbur Debnam’s nephew and current owner of Debnam Ace Hardware. “There was a ton of loyalty to him.”
Wilbur Debnam remained with the downtown Zebulon mainstay until he retired in 1990.
In 1955, Debnam was elected as mayor of Zebulon and served one four-year term. Dr. Jerry Cross, the author of a book on the history of the town, said a notable point of Debnam’s term came when he hosted an appearance by former President Harry S. Truman.
“It was an ordinary growth period with normal development, but that was probably the highlight of Wilbur’s administration,” Cross said.
Davis said Debnam handled big events, like Truman’s visit, well.
“I wouldn’t say he was a great speaker, but he was sincere and meant what he said,” Davis said. “He was another one that probably could have been mayor as long as he wanted to.”
Debnam was a dedicated member of Zebulon Baptist Church, where he served as Sunday school superintendent, member of the board of trustees, a deacon chairman, and on the finance and sanctuary building committees.
“Wilbur was one of the finest leaders we ever had in our church,” said Pastor Jack Glasgow, who has served at the church since 1977. “He was a forward-thinking man, very much a fine Christian gentleman and a great friend. We’re really going to miss him at Zebulon Baptist Church.”
He is survived by his wife and two children – his son, Wilbur Thurston Debnam Jr. and wife Tracy; daughter Candace Debnam Martin and husband Steve; and five grandchildren – Mary Paul Debnam Cantin and husband Tony, Anne Thurston Debnam, Tom Martin and wife Angela, Christian Martin and wife Heather, and Parker Leigh Debnam. He is also survived by five great-grandchildren – Evan and Lillie Cantin, and William, Melina and Franklin Martin – and two brothers, Dwite Debnam and James Debnam and wife Lillie. He was predeceased by his parents, his stepmother Mary Mitchell Debnam, his brother Mallie Clifford Debnam, and sisters Elise Debnam Marle and Mary Idaline Debnam.
Debnam’s funeral service was held Oct.5 at Zebulon Baptist Church. He was buried in the Zebulon Town Cemetery.