When Little Compton’s Ben Wilkie lost his life to colon cancer in the summer of 1994, his sister Caroline (Wilkie) Wordell channeled her heartache into action by creating the Ben Wilkie Memorial Tree Spree which raises scholarship money in memory of her late big brother, a well-loved mechanic in town. Little could she have anticipated that the event would still be going strong 23 years later and come to symbolize the community’s unofficial kick off to the Christmas season. An average of 40 scholarships are now awarded each year to Little Compton residents pursuing higher education. Caroline, whose family’s ancestry runs deep in the town, is a graduate of Bristol Community College and for many years she managed Wilbur’s General Store. Caroline credits her brothers Carlton and Chester and families, her daughter Traci and dear friends for all of their invaluable help with the event.
The 23rd Ben Wilkie Memorial Tree Spree will be held on December 4 from 1-7 pm in the Wilbur School gym in Little Compton. To learn more about the scholarship program, visit ScholarshipLittleCompton.org or email Caroline at CWilkie43@cox.net
I was so grief stricken I had to do something positive or I knew it would consume me. I decided to fund a scholarship in his name. The tree spree has taken on a life of its own. One year we had a blizzard but it didn’t stop people from coming. I joke that if we decided not to continue, people would still show up. People are so involved in seeing each other from year to year, and it takes time to walk around and see all the trees. That night is the town’s tree lighting and caroling, and many people will come out for that too.
Our first year we had 35 trees and now it’s up to 75 trees and eight center tables filled with donated items. There is no fee for attending. We sell raffle tickets from $1 to $20. People put their tickets in the bag for the tree or item they want. Everyone creates their own theme to decorate their (donated) tree. It ranges from kids’ movies or games of that year to pop culture. There are also trees in memory of people who have passed away. The money and lottery decorated trees are very popular but we have never had an unwanted tree. There are so many fabulous tree stories. One year two little girls both wanted a Barbie themed tree. The girl who got it said to the other girl, “You can pick anything you want off the tree.”
My goal was to fund it for $20,000 dollars thinking the interest rate would never go below 5% and I would have one $1000 scholarship every year. We now raise close to $20,000 dollars that day so we also fund a lot of other scholarships with that money. People from other places have asked me how they can start doing this event, I say, “The first thing you start with is having incredibly generous people.”
My brother loved Christmas and children. One Christmas Eve he wanted to deliver a car he had fixed up for a family who didn’t own one. That’s the kind of person he was. I have a meltdown every year before I go but once I am there it is such a happy occasion. The first year a friend decorated a tree with car parts sprayed in gold and silver and had a sign on it, “Thank you Benny for keeping us going all these years.” I still miss him a lot.