BRIDGTON- Robert S. Wilkinson
05-05-1935 to 11-25-2023
Bob Wilkinson passed away peacefully in my arms Saturday, November 25, 2023. He was known as Dad, Grampy, Brother, Uncle, Coach, Mr. Wilkinson, Wilkie, Teach, Neighbor and Friend to many people. He lived his life in service to others. Bob exemplified love, honor, integrity, honesty, kindness,sincerity, and believed that teaching was a gift that he could share till he passed. As one of his former students wrote: “he was consistently reliable and unwavering in his principles, regardless of the prevailing circumstances or trends....a man who led by example, adhered to his convictions and moral compass, even in the face of adversity or personal sacrifice….he taught us integrity, strength of character, and a deep sense of personal responsibility….he embodied courage, loyalty and uncompromising honesty. The lasting lesson that coach taught us was that true strength lies not in conforming to external pressures but in upholding one’s principles, even when it means standing alone. He was a wrestling coach in the winter. He was a man for all seasons.” J.L.
Bob was very proud of and loved his parents, Dr. Samuel A. and Margaret J. Wilkinson. Dr. Wilkinson was the role model for honesty, excellence and integrity. In 1930, Dr. Wilkinson joined the staff at the Lahey Clinic in Boston, Massachusetts. Working along with visionaries Dr. Lahey and Dr. Sara Jordan, the clinic quickly became known as one of the best medical facilities in the country. Dr. Wilkinson was a leader in his specialty, and, in 1956, he was honored to become president of the AGA, American Gastroenterological Society. Bob’s grandmother, Grammy Jones, also lived with them in Brookline, and he loved visiting her room to have tea and eat candied ginger. He had five siblings, Sam, Peggy, Dave, John (died in early childhood), and Dan, his only surviving brother. As a young boy, Bob taught himself magic tricks, and he enjoyed entertaining his parents’guests at their Christmas parties. Bob had many nieces and nephews that he also really loved and was so happy to be able to share time with them at family gatherings up at their summer home on Province Mountain.
Bob didn’t excel in school, and he didn’t realize it then, but this eventually helped make him a great teacher. As an English major, he took a break from college and joined the army. With aTop-Secret Clearance, Bob served in Germany repairing the guidance systems of the Nike Missiles. This was a real accomplishment, as he had to teach himself electronics in 12 weeks, competing with engineering students. He excelled. In a field of two hundred, twelve were chosen, then three soldiers were sent to Germany. He was one of them.
In 1958 when his tour of duty was over, he came back from Germany with Erika, his first wife. Bob went back to school at Middlebury College in Vermont, graduated and then on to receive his master’s degree in English Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English. While he was at Bread Loaf, he met and had discussions with poets Robert Frost and his favorite teacher, John Berryman. Bob had the utmost respect for these two men, along with Dr. John Stafford, a colleague in Rutland who taught him how to grade papers and discipline, skills that they didn’t teach in college. In 1960-61 he began his teaching career at Lyman C Hunt Jr. High in Burlington, Vermont, teaching English, Math and 8th grade Science. He was given the most difficult students as a newbie teacher, and these first students helped him become great a teacher by challenging him. Bobalways worked to help his students, putting them first, spending many hours correcting papers and working on lesson plans. He was able to motivate them, always fair, interesting, and fun. He used stories to help his students make the connections between pieces of literature and writing assignments. His goal was toteach his students HOW to think. He developed a unique way of teaching the parts of speech by using the diagram of a car with the engine and all its parts. For example, the gas in the tank represented a verb because it made the car run. The other parts were adverbs, nouns, etc. In 1961- 1963 he taught English 11 and Drama at the Rutland High School.
In 1963 Bob and Erika and their children moved to Massachusetts. From 1963 to 1966 he taught English 9-12 and was the varsity wrestling coach at the Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts. From 1966 to 1969 he taught English6-12 and was again the varsity wrestling coach at the Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his alma-mater. Bob always put his students first, often finding himself introuble with the administration as a result.
In 1969 Bob and I married, and in 1970 we moved to Maine. We bought a 100-acre farm in W. Newfield and built a 28-by-40-foot cape and a barn out of salvaged lumber and building supplies using only hand tools because we didn’t have electricity. The nearest utility poles were 2 miles away. Heather, Russ and Grace wanted to come “live with us” so Bob and Imade that happen. It was rough at first with no electricity or running water, but the kids never complained. Horses, cows, goats, chickens, pigs, dogs, cats, rabbits, bees, ducks, geese, theoccasional turkey, and even earth worms came next, and we all learned that what is really important is being together as a family and working toward a common goal. Money was scarce, but we were happy, and we had great food, a four-acre organic garden, fresh raw milk, eggs, beef and our own smoked hams and bacon, and fresh baked bread every day. Bob continued to teach, farm and run a business. We were never bored; in fact, we didn’t understand how someone could be bored. He used to say,“If you say I’m bored, I will give you a job to do.” We always had plenty of jobs.
After Heather, Russ and Grace went away to school and work,Bob and I sold off the animals and tried to figure out what wewere going to do next. In 1979 Bob started Intelli-Tech and Tech 2000: a Maine based manufacturing and distributing oil burner accessories. He is the holder of the patent for the Wilkinson Viscosity Stabilizer, a device that saves fuel oil andincreases the efficiency in oil burners (hearkening back to his electronics training.) He ran the business for 10 years but in 1989 made the difficult decision to close the business. It was a very difficult market. The oil dealers didn’t like the idea of this upstart company saving customers gallons of oil and service calls.
Bob and I decided that we would have to do something else less stressful, so we started making model boats in 1985. Bob had done this as a young boy, so it was easy to start fabricating modern versions. We were fortunate to meet Leon Gorman, LL Bean’s grandson, at a boat show in Portland. Mr. Gorman was one of our first customers, commissioning us to build an Old Town Canoe, a Grand Lake Stream Canoe and a Rangeley Lake Boat. We delivered the finished models July 3, 1985. They were on display at the flagship store in Freeport for several years. As was Bob’s style, these models were exact replicas of the big boats. He used real wood: cedar, ash, spruce, etc. No balsa wood for him. Every detail, including the paint and cloth covering, was exact.
Bob had the ability to look at a boat and recreate the lines without drawings or plans. His reputation grew. We really enjoyed building the models, it was so gratifying to see the joy that they brought to the new owners. Many of them were given to brothers, sisters, wives and husbands, as birthday and Christmas presents. We found that the commissions came from people that truly loved their boats, they may not have been the most expensive boat in the marina, but they were lovingly cared for and we honored that, even putting small imperfections in the models where the big boat had one. Bob and I went on to build more canoes, sailboats, Chris-Crafts, Hacker-Crafts, and two Tom Fexas designed yachts, one for John Payson as a present for his sister. Heady stuff. These were built like the original; if it was a fiber glass hull, we made a mold and built it out of resin and cloth, using tiny saws to cut the planking, etc. Many had interiors with birthday cakes, fabric, opening cupboards, a tiny roll top desk with stationery in it, hunting and fishingequipment, blankets, and little boxes of wood with tiny axes in the canoes. Some were radio controlled, so they could “run” on the water. Most of the models were built on a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot, except the big yachts, for which we used a ¾ inch to 1 foot scale.
1989 found us in the Florida Keys and using the skills learned in model making we decided to build our own big boat. Bob had always loved sailing, so the decision was made to design and build a 35-foot sailboat with a shallow draft. We rented a housein Key Largo and started the construction of Claire Marie in ourbackyard. The neighbors literally came and stared. It took nine months. Our first race was the Columbus Day Regatta in S. Florida. Another success, CLAIRE MARIE was everything wehoped for, fast and handled like a dream.
In 1989-1993 Bob and I then became property managers and oversaw the construction of a beautiful home in North Key Largo, Florida. While in this role Bob also worked in Key Alternative program, keeping at risk children in school. 1994 -1997 found him teaching English Composition, Literature, Creative Writing, and Humanities at Florida Keys Community College. This was one of his favorite teaching posts, he said, “The students are so motivated, it makes my job easy.”
After ten years in Florida, in 1997 we decided to go to the U.S.Virgin Islands to teach and start the adventure of living on Claire Marie. Setting sail from Florida to St. Thomas did not go smoothly. Just as we were leaving Cat Island and the Bahamas, we hit a coral reef, called Devil’s Point. A couple in a little Pepto Bismol pink boat were fishing nearby and saw that wewere in trouble, breaking up on the reef. They literally saved us,diving down in shark infested water to free Claire Marie. Bob, our two friends and I were so grateful. Claire Marie was badly damaged. After a month of working on her, on the small patch of sand next to an inlet, Bob and I tried to finish the trip. Wewere 350 miles offshore when we ran into Hurricane Bonnie.This was no fun, sailing in a hurricane with a damaged leaking boat, but God took care of us. We turned and ran with the storm back to the safe harbor of Cat Island. We had to leave Claire Marie in the Bahamas for the winter; we had jobs waiting in St. Thomas.
The next summer, Bob went back to Cat Island for CLAIRE MARIE to return her to Florida for repairs. I flew to Florida, and we worked on her in the yard, giving her a new lease on life.Bob then decided to ship her to the VI on a transport ship. He wrote about this in an unpublished manuscript called The Devil in Thin Water. Bob taught in the U.S Virgin Islands from 1997 to 2005, teaching English at All Saints Cathedral School, Antilles School, on St. Thomas, teaching English and writing, as Dean of Faculty, and Language Arts and US history and guidance counselor at the Coral Bay School on St. John, USVI.From 2006 to 2009 he was President of the Artist’s Association of St. John.
After 16 years in the V.I., we really wanted to return home. In 2012, we found a wonderful place in Bridgton, Maine. Bob and I had had enough adventure. Bob finally had time to write his memoirs; The Black Cloak was published and is available on Amazon. This is his story, about growing up and his early years of teaching. It is a wonderful, fun, nostalgic story about a simpler time.
He was such an incredible person and there were so many facets to his life that it is hard to write them down without going on for pages. After reading the first draft of this obit, a friend said,“What about his ‘Song’s from The Porch’ CD?” How could I have forgotten to mention his music?! It was as much a part of him as loving his family and teaching. It became a tradition to play these family favorites on the porch on Province Mountainfor generations.
The most important memory that I want to leave you with is of his very great love for his children, grandchildren, brother, nieces and nephews, his many students, his last one, a 13-year-old girl that he helped to home school. He never gave up on teaching or people.
Bob was the very proud and loving father of Heather Sirocki, Russel Wilkinson and Grace Hutchins and grandfather to Matthew, Alec and Jeff Sirocki, Raymond Hutchins and Spencer Wilkinson. His children, his adopted daughter Li, and their spouses, Steve Sirocki, Mona Wilkinson and Barry Hutchins and grandsons and many dear friends will miss him tremendously.
In his own words: “My basic philosophy: tomorrow always depends upon what I do today.”
As his wife of 54 years, I can honestly say that it was my privilege to have been loved by him. God truly has blessed me and all who have known Bob. He is in heaven now, probably telling stories, jokes, and playing music. He was called a Renaissance Man by several friends and acquaintances. He was my everything.
A memorial service will be held at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, 85 Pleasant St., Conway, NH at 2 PM on Sunday, May 5, 2024 with a reception immediately following.
Arrangements have been entrusted to Poitras, Neal & York Funeral Home, Cornish, www.mainefuneral.com