His epitaph reads, "A very interesting fella."
His first name is not even on his tombstone. Born in 1934, Elvis Otha Wingo was a young man when another Elvis took the country by storm. I never asked Otha if that was why he preferred to use his middle name but it might have been. After all, back then there was only one Elvis and, make no mistake, there was also only one Otha.
Shortly after being appointed editor of the Missouri Freemason magazine I learned I had an assistant editor who had held the position for years, never wanting to move into the editor's chair. It was, the Grand Secretary told me, a Brother named Dr. E. Otha Wingo. A couple weeks later I went to our Grand Lodge communication and found him in the cavernous hall where we hold the plenary session. We introduced ourselves and had a lengthy conversation about the magazine, Freemasonry, and a few other things. I learned he had earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and for many years had been a professor of ancient Greek, Latin, and Mythology at Southeast Missouri State University. As the hall began to fill for our meeting, Otha excused himself from our conversation to attend to another duty. Already impressed by this obviously brilliant Brother, I was stunned when he walked over to a piano, sat down, and began playing. He had neglected to tell me he was an accomplished pianist and served as the musician for our Grand Sessions.
"This man," I thought, "is my assistant editor. I should be his assistant instead."
As assistant editor, RWB Wingo only had one job. For years, even before I became a member, he wrote a column, "To Improve Myself in Freemasonry," which always appeared on the back cover of the magazine. The "back page column," as it was known, and Otha himself were both icons to our Grand Lodge members.
In all the years I knew him, I came to realize our first conversation didn't tell half the story.
Otha grew up in Boonville, Mississippi, The son of Elijah and Edna Goodin Wingo. His parents were sharecroppers, who could barely scratch out a living during the depression years of his youth. He developed an early interest in playing the piano. His family could not afford such an expensive instrument, so he took a long strip of cardboard and drew the keys on it, using that to learn to play.
At the age of 12, he taught an adult Bible class at Booneville Baptist Church and, four years later at just 16, the child genius was admitted to college, where he studied classical languages. In 1963, his 198-page doctoral thesis. "Latin Punctuation in the Classical Age," proved for the first time that the Romans used punctuation in the written Latin language.
Otha was initiated September 12, 1966 and spent the bulk of his Masonic life as a member of Harold O. Grauel Lodge 672, where he served as Master in 1973. On the Charter Night of that Lodge, Dr. Wingo not only gave a dissertation on the history of the Lodge's formation but also, as the official Lodge prognosticator, told its fortune.
His extensive Masonic resume includes serving on many Grand Lodge committees and a variety of positions. He was District Deputy Grand Lecturer from 1998-2010. In 2007, he was honored by being elected just the 12th Fellow of the Missouri Lodge of Research, and in 2011 received the coveted Truman Medal from the Grand Lodge of Missouri.
The introspective Brother Wingo was president of Huna Research, a society promoting, in its words, a practical way of life containing elements of philosophy, science, and religion. He succeeded the group's founder Max Freedom and served in that position for 40 years.
Working as a missionary in the 1950s, Otha hitchhiked across Jamaica. He was a personal friend of Mahalia Jackson and, as if his life wasn't busy enough, he was a certified private investigator.
The articles RWB Wingo wrote for the magazine were thoughtful, deep, serious, and even sometimes humorous. They all reflected his thorough knowledge of Freemasonry, its principles, and history. As DDGL he liked to include articles on memory aids to assist Brothers in learning the ritual. He never hesitated to drop in information stemming from his deep knowledge of classical languages and mythology. He also confused us from time to time with titles like "The Anacreontic Ode," and "Simillimum."
I once had the temerity to reject one of Otha's articles. Well… sort of. In 2012, he submitted a column entitled "Traditional Observance." TO Lodges, as they are sometimes called, are much more formal than many of our own Lodges. They follow traditional Masonic practices and the original goals of Freemasonry. They usually include Masonic education and discussion in their gatherings. Members almost always dress in tuxedos, focus on the quality of performing the ritual, and usually observe a festive board at each meeting. Sometimes members' attendance, within reason, is required. Otha's article objectively described the origins and practices of TO Lodges.
Like all of Brother Wingo's articles, "Traditional Observance" was interesting, perceptive, and educational. It was certainly worthy of publication. However, the Grand Lodge of Missouri bylaws prohibits TO Lodges. Not just that, some influential members in Missouri are adamantly opposed to them claiming, among other issues, they are elitist. I called Otha and after discussing the issue, we decided it would be better not to publish it. Within a couple of days, the prolific RWB Wingo sent me a replacement article.
In 2015, after a decade as editor of the Missouri Freemason, and a decade of working with Otha, I moved on to other projects. When the first edition of the magazine came out under a new editor, I picked it up out of the mail and immediately turned to the back cover to read Otha's column. Something struck me as strange. The format was different. The title of the article was "The Back Page Legend." Beneath that were the words, "RWB Dr. E. Otha Wingo, PDDGL, FMLR, 1934-2015." Stunned, I gradually realized I was reading Otha's obituary. I had had no reason to communicate with him since our work on the previous issue, and so the back page of the magazine, the space Otha had owned for years, is where I learned of his passing. Somewhat ironically, it turned out my last edition of the magazine was also his. In losing Brother Wingo, Freemasonry had lost a great talent.
A decorated Freemason, known to be a loving family man, an author, an accomplished musician, a scholar, a missionary, Sunday school teacher, and even a private investigator – Dr. Elvis Otha Wingo was, indeed, an interesting "fella."
Note: The never before published "Traditional Observance," by RWB E. Otha Wingo, will appear in the next edition of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He will be featured in the next episode of the Whence Came You Podcast.