EVERY FEBRUARY ON HIS BIRTHDAY Vernon Wilson gives something away. So his wife, Francis, wasn't surprised two years ago when he picked up the phone and called an acquaintance at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Newport News, Va., who had asked him for help building houses for the poor. But she wasn't completely prepared for what she heard next: Wilson, who earns $25,000 a year as a self-taught jeweler, said he wanted to donate $182,000 worth of gemstones to the Peninsula Habitat for Humanity in Newport News. "Vernon was just so calm about it," she says. "I was sitting there thinking, 'You must have had a stroke.' "

The truth is, Francis is proud of her husband. Vernon Wilson, 49, is not a captain of industry like Ted Turner, who recently promised the United Nations $1 billion over 10 years, or Bill Gates, who last June endowed the nation's public libraries with $200 million worth of computer equipment. And that makes his gift all the more remarkable, since the 1,600 diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones he had collected over 30 years constituted his life savings. "I strongly believe in helping people to help themselves," he says, explaining his choice of Habitat for Humanity, which requires its beneficiaries to put 400 hours of sweat equity into the houses they are given.

But a still stronger belief impelled Wilson to give away the gems he had been saving for his retirement. Four years ago he was in a car wreck that left him with a ruptured disk and torn neck muscles. "My life is wrapped up with what I do with my hands, and I couldn't work," he says. "I sank into a real depression. I had thoughts of suicide."

An operation helped restore Wilson's body, but what brought him back to life, he thinks, was his enduring trust in God—the same God he believes called on him to give his nest egg to the needy. "I believe God will put you where you need to be," he says. "But you need to make the step and have faith. If you do, you'll be blessed."

He wanted his gift to remain anonymous, but when Habitat realized they could make more money with finished jewelry, Wilson enlisted a dozen other artisans to fashion exquisite pieces from the stones. Some of them recently went to shops in southeastern Virginia; others, along with individual stones, will be sold at the Phoebus Auction Gallery in Hampton.

Few people are willing to risk their future security for charity's sake, but Wilson has always, he says, been "a little bit different." Growing up mainly in Hampton Roads, the third of five children of a Navy petty officer and a homemaker, he "was never good in school," he says, and suspects he may have suffered from attention deficit disorder. Having finished high school in 1966, he went to work for a Newport News shipbuilder installing periscopes in submarines. "It's exacting work," he says. "That's when I first realized I was good with my hands."

Wilson didn't discover his ultimate calling until 1972. After he had spent four years in the Navy, a jewelry supplier, moved by his sincere manner, provided him with some turquoise and silver and showed him how to work with them. The supplier's wife bought every one of Wilson's creations.

By 1975, Wilson had opened his own shop in nearby Williamsburg, where 10 years later he met and married a customer, Francis Fredericks, now 50, and became stepfather to her three children, now ages 20 to 24. Eventually demand for his work became so great, he was able to concentrate on custom jewelry. At his peak Wilson was turning out 2,000 pieces a year and winning national and international awards.

Then, on Jan. 18, 1994, he was in a life-altering accident. Francis was driving their pickup on a snowy night when a tractor trailer spun out and hit them. "Vernon was on the passenger side and saw it coming," says Francis. "He jerked to the side to try to get out of the way, but he got hit."

What followed for Wilson was first deep despair, then a kind of rebirth. "Plans? Who needs plans?" he says of the uncertain future he chose. "My security was my gemstone collection. By giving that up, I believe I was doing what God wanted me to do. Now I am able to go back and work."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
ROSE ELLEN O'CONNOR in Newport News

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