Howard Wilkins Obituary
by Rob Dinerman

April 16, 2003  -Squashtalk is sad to report the death on April 1st of C.Howard Wilkins,
one of the most popular, revered and well-traveled squash players in USSRA
history, who passed away in his home town of Wichita, Kansas surrounded by
his immediate family less than a month before what would have been his 95th
birthday. Winner of a total of 13 USSRA age-group hardball and softball
championships in the 70's, 75's, 80's and 85's divisions between 1984 and
1996, Wilkins also earned a number of prestigious honors right around the
time of his 90th birthday in 1998, when in rapid succession over a hectic
ten-week span he received the John D. Moore "Friend Of The Game" Award, the
Presidents Cup (the USSRA's highest "citizenship" distinction) and the
Jesters Cup from the American Jesters Club.

This trilogy was capped off on May 2nd, when in front of his entire family and a noisily appreciative crowd of several hundred spectators Wilkins threw out of the first pitch at the dedication of the Wichita State University Women's Softball Stadium, named Wilkins Stadium in honor of the man without whose fundraising efforts, spurred by the enjoyment he gained from watching his grand-daughters' games, its construction would not have been possible.

A quiet, courtly but gregarious man who crisscrossed the entire nation attending invitational and national squash tournaments for more than a quarter-century, Wilkins became known and beloved for his insatiable enthusiasm for the game, for the distinctive bow ties and colorful suspenders that were always part of his off-court attire and for the bouquets of red roses that he frequently ordered for the women who attended the Saturday night dinners that are often part of the tournament weekend.

What Grandma Moses was to painting and artwork, neither of which she did
professionally until well into her 60's, Howard Wilkins was to squash, a sport he had never played before age 50, and then only at the behest of a friend and neighbor named John O'Shaughnessy, who in 1958 invited him to play squash with him at the latter's newly constructed court at his nearby Eastborough residence.

Gradually a number of their mutual friends started dropping by as well, and this group started calling themselves the Shillelagh Squash Club and booking home-and-home competitions with clubs in the region such as the Tulsa, Omaha, Kansas City University, Missouri Athletic and Denver Clubs.

Wilkins was nearly 73 years old when he entered his first USSRA national event, the '81 hardball championships in Detroit, where he was forced to play in the 60-and-over draw, which was the oldest available age-group flight at the time. His opening-round opponent, Franklin Gould, whom Wilkins defeated in four games before losing in the next round to the much younger Taft Toribara, was the only entrant who was even older (by three months) than he was, but enough near-contemporaries (including Charlie Smoot, Charles Keefer and John Weissenfluh, all now deceased, as is Gould) started joining them for the USSRA Nationals, over time cooperatively and admiringly advancing the age draws to the point where there was a fairly well-subscribed 85-and-over flight in action by the late 1990's.

Although many squash aficionados, amazed by the continuing vitality exuded by this elderly but ageless band of brothers, called them an inspiration to the squash world, it is almost certainly the case that the group they most inspired was each other, providing both a bond and a source of comfort to these men, many of whom had by then been widowed for decades, as Wilkins himself was when Frances Jane Austin, his wife of almost 44 years, died in the autumn of 1977. The couple had three children, C. Howard Wilkins, Jr., a former U. S. Ambassador to the Netherlands during the first Bush administration, Jane Wilkins Gifford and Robert Wilkins, who worked with and in the office right next to his father as financial advisors at Prudential, the successor firm to the same company the senior Wilkins joined in July 1929, little more than a month after graduating from Yale University with degrees in History and Economics.

They gave Wilkins 13 grand-children, who in turn have produced seven great-grand-children, and almost all his three generations' worth of descendants were on at his bedside when he finally passed away, mere hours after officially retiring from Prudential earlier that day, thereby ending 74 years of dedicated service, all with the same company. These figures dwarf even the 39 years Wilkins spent playing squash until a back injury incurred in 1997 prevented him from continuing and the 43 years during which he drove a jet-black 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 convertible with a retractable hardtop, which he always kept in mint condition, even the original red-and-white upholstery, and whose front license plate appropriately reads "A Classic," an
appellation that surely applies even more to its owner than it does to the automobile itself.

It is a sign of the adaptability Wilkins evinced throughout the enormous changes the world underwent during the almost century-long course of his life that, even given the obvious affection he developed for routine (same company, same car, same sport, same attire, all for DECADES at a time), he showed the same ability to switch from hardball to softball that he did in handling the explosion of technology in securities trading, an amazing accomplishment for someone who once manned the stock ticker and sent local orders to New York by telephone.

He also maintained the same love of his home base in Wichita even as it added cultural and culinary institutions as part of its massive expansion from the sleepy, peaceful town it had been when Wilkins and his wife moved there in 1937 before it experienced a substantial wartime population boom.

The longevity that characterized both his squash career and so many other major aspects of Wilkins's life as well, and the good will and wry humor he exuded throughout, no doubt were major reasons why the October 1999 edition of the Prudential Leader showed a full-color photograph of Wilkins standing in the passenger seat of his beloved 1957 Ford on the cover of a feature piece proclaiming "Picking Up Speed After 55," actually an major understatement, as Wilkins was 91 years old at the time.

His son and long-time Prudential colleague Robert was quoted during the funeral service as saying of his father that "He died on his own terms," an accurate
statement for sure, but what seems even more important is that Howard Wilkins
LIVED on his own terms as well, and touched the lives of so many others in
the process, including innumerable members of the squash community he graced
with his charm, skill and manners for so many memorable years.



 


This first appeared on squashtalk.com



Back To Dinerman Archive


Main