Claudia Wiltbank-Johnson

September 28, 2010
Claudia Wiltbank-Johnson said she never feeds or waters her fig tree. “When it rains, that’s what God does. Nobody takes care of it. I don’t touch it. I just give the fruit to people and tell them how the tree got started,” she said. NONE HENRY J. EVANS JR. PHOTO

Maybe it’s the figs but chances are better Claudia Wiltbank-Johnson comes by her jubilant personality naturally.

“People in town come and pick them. They make fig salad, and they like to make something with chicken, but I’ve never seen that before,” she said.

Wiltbank-Johnson’s father, Arlington Wiltbank, planted the tree next to his house on St. Paul Street sometime before 1997.

He died in 2002. Wiltbank-Johnson said the tree really took off in 2005.

“Everybody comes around, and I give him or her the opportunity to just pick em,” she said.

So, what does she make that’s fig-based? “Nothing. I just eat them from the tree,” she said, laughing.

Wiltbank-Johnson, 62, said she’s researched figs and learned they’re an excellent digestive aid.

“There’re real sweet and they’re good for you. I know they talk about the fig tree in the Bible, but Jesus didn’t say anything about this one. He lets this one grow right here on St. Paul Street,” she said, referring to a fig tree Jesus cursed and the next day had withered.

She said she never feeds or waters the tree. “When it rains, that’s what God does. Nobody takes care of it. I don’t touch it. I just give the fruit to people and tell them how the tree got started,” she said.

She said figs store well in the freezer and although the tree is heavy with fruit in late August, it’s gone by early October before fall’s first frost.

Some who stop to pick figs from Wiltbank-Johnson’s tree might also be treated to her vocal talents when she sings ‘Everybody Loves a Lover.’

“It goes like this. ‘Everybody . . . de do de do . . . loves somebody, de do de do. Every body, loves me. Oh, you know they do. And I love every body, since I fell, since I fell, fell in love with you.”

She sings lead, background and simultaneously provides a finger-snapping backbeat. The song was originally recorded and popularized by Doris Day in 1958 and was covered by several groups throughout the 1960s including the Shirelles.

Wiltbank-Johnson is a U.S. Army Reserve veteran who was stationed at Fort McClellan near Anniston, Ala., and at Fort Dix, N.J. “I loved it,” she said of her army experience. Her father built the house the tree is growing next to in 1971. Claudia has lived in Lewes all her life.

“He kept telling me to look out the window and see the tree. He said, ‘You keep watching it because you’re going to be here ‘till the day God comes and takes you up.’ And I said OK, because at that time there was just something spiritual about it. It’s been growing ever since, nothing but fruit. Beautiful,” she said.

Wiltbank-Johnson said her father was a U.S. Navy veteran, and after the service he owned a clothes-cleaning company at Fourth Street and Savannah Road in Lewes.

“I was born at 411 Park Avenue. When I was a baby, they brought me over here, which was great-grandma Hannah Lewis’s property. We were all here, seven of us in the family,” she said.

She has traced her roots back to Barcelona, Spain. “One of my great grandfather’s brothers stowed away on a boat. They found him and made him a cabin boy until they reached South Carolina. His name was Leonardo Rossi,” she said. But when the British took over, Wiltbank-Johnson said the name was changed to Ross.

She has two adult children, Nicky and Pam, and former Lewes Police Department Chief Ronald “Beau” Gooch is her first cousin. But of all the things that bring Claudia joy, the fig tree and its fruit ranks near the top.

“It makes me feel good that people like them,” she said.

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