It takes a lot of guts to go back to school when you havenâ€™t been in a classroom in over two decades.
Itâ€™s just as big of a risk to start your own business at the age of 44.
Billy Wilson of Lincolnton has done both.
Wilson used to work at Comforto as a paint line technician, a job he had held since 1988. When the plant closed in 2004, Wilson was out of a job and, like many others, wasnâ€™t sure what to do next.
Then he found out about the Trade Act program, under which workers who have been laid off can get funding for school and still collect unemployment.
â€œI looked at options of getting another job,â€ said Wilson. â€œWhen I found out about it, I realized it was my best option to go back to school.â€
Deciding what to study was easy for Wilson.
â€œIâ€™ve had a love for food since I was a young kid,â€ Wilson said. â€œI owe that to my mom, dad and grandmother.â€
Wilsonâ€™s grandmother Virginia, called â€œMaâ€ by those who knew her, was a big influence on the future chef. Wilson remembers helping her in the kitchen and learning the joys of home cooking.
His mother, Lana Woods, used to own a restaurant and catering company. Wilsonâ€™s father Jim has always been known for his skills as a barbecue cook.
Culinary school was the obvious choice.
He originally planned to go to Johnson and Wales until he found out he had to attend a state school in order to benefit from the Trade Act program.
He chose Central Piedmont Community College.
According to Wilson, his experience there has been all he could have asked for.
â€œAll my instructors are very well-trained,â€ said Wilson. â€œI couldnâ€™t ask for a better group of people.â€
Wilson says going back to school was intimidating at first, especially having to take four math classes. But he persevered and ended up making all As and Bs.
He graduated on May 10 with a 3.675 grade point average after making the Deanâ€™s List every semester and the Presidentâ€™s List his last semester.
At graduation, Wilson was named Outstanding Culinary Student for the year, an honor bestowed upon him by the faculty.
His glowing achievements at CPCC made Wilson take a look back.
â€œIt made me mad that I didnâ€™t try harder in high school,â€ Wilson said. â€œIf I had it to do over again, I would have tried harder.â€
At CPCC, Wilson got the chance to make up for a lackadaisical high school experience. He says he loved culinary school despite the fact that many of the classes were challenging.
Now, Wilson is ready for a new challenge.
â€œIâ€™m actually starting up a catering company,â€ he said.
Currently in search of a kitchen to work out of, Wilson and business partner Ronnie Adams, a fishing buddy he worked with at Comforto, have already created a menu for the business they call Cedar Creek Catering.
â€œWe want to offer a really good product at a reasonable price,â€ said Wilson.
They plan to stay in the Lincolnton area, doing exactly what their menu says: â€œServing traditional and unique options sure to please you and your guests.â€
Wilson wants to present a good mix of the home cooking he learned from his family and the more upscale fare he studied in culinary school. The menu features everything from barbecue chicken to Italian shrimp scampi pasta.
Cedar Creek Catering will also specialize in pork barbecue and will feature Wilsonâ€™s famous meatloaf, a dish he perfected when his mother owned Catawba Valley Catering and Vending in Denver. He says the folks at Duke Power loved his meatloaf.
â€œIâ€™ve made several hundred in my day,â€ said Wilson.
Wilson will likely have to make many more before all is said and done. He and Adams have even bigger plans for the future.
â€œEventually we want to have a restaurant,â€ Wilson said. â€œI think downtown Lincolnton is the perfect place.â€
Having completed a required co-op for culinary school under Rick Dudley at 36th Street Bakery, Wilson already has experience cooking for the people of Lincolnton.
Hopefully, he will get plenty of chances to show just how great of a decision going back to school was.
Wilson credits his family, including wife Mary, children Cole, Paula and Katie and stepson Matt Drake with helping him get through classes at CPCC.
He says his college-age kids helped him type up the papers he wrote and Cherryville High School student Matt helped him with math. Wilson feels he couldnâ€™t have made it without them.
â€œI have a very supportive family to help get me through this,â€ said Wilson. â€œTheyâ€™ve all pitched in and helped.â€
There was a time a few years ago when Wilson didnâ€™t know if he would get a second chance.
Now, as he embarks on his new venture, Wilson stands as an example of how to take that second chance and turn it into the opportunity of a lifetime.
by Allyson Levine