Wilkins told stories of town's sporting life

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Baseball brought Bill Wilkins to Elizabethton. The town and the people kept him here.
   A skinny catcher who caught on with the Chicago Cubs after serving in World War II, Wilkins came to Elizabethton in 1947 as a minor league baseball player. He made the community his home contributing to the town's recreational developments. Today, at a robust 80, Wilkins lives in Elizabethton with his second wife, Kay, with whom he has been married for 36 years. His work in the community and the lifelong friendships he made remain indelible on his memory.
   "I met a lot of fine people and saw some great athletes," he says Wilkins, whose Midwestern accent and jovial demeanor gave sports broadcasting of Elizabethton High School athletics a personality.
   Wilkins grew up in southern Illinois near the town of Momence. He excelled at all sports but his skills with the mitt and love for the game made the diamond life Wilkins' passion. His summer after high school, Wilkins played on a summer league team coached by none other than legendary major leaguer Honus Wagner.
   "I truly wanted to be a professional baseball player," Wilkins says. But like millions of young Americans who came of age in the early 1940s, his career plans met a delay in the form of a world war.
   Wilkins graduated high school in 1943 at the height of World War II. He joined the U.S. Army, left rural Illinois and spent three years in the European theater. He returned to Momence determined to play big league baseball. A catcher by position, Wilkins got a tryout at Kankakee, Ill., with the Cubs and earned a minor league contract.
   "They invited me up to Wrigley Field, gave me a contract and sent me to Elizabethton," said Wilkins. "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh! Where's that?"
   Wilkins also logged time with minor league teams in Lumberton, N.C., and Grand Rapids, Mich., before returning to Betsy. The military service cost Wilkins his developmental baseball years away, however.
   "I had lost three years of ball there," he said. "I believe if I had those three years back, I would have possibly made the big show."
   After considering his baseball prospects and the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill, Wilkins decided to leave baseball and set about a career in education and coaching. He graduated from East Tennessee State University where he struck up friendships with coaching contemporaries including Carter County legends Charlie Bayless and Buck Van Huss. Wilkins vividly recalled Van Huss leading the Hampton Bulldogs to their first state basketball championship in 1960.
   "There were no classifications in those days," Wilkins says. "You played everybody regardless of the size of the school."
   He coached basketball and baseball for five years at Virginia High School and three years at Science Hill High School. Wilkins' America came light years before 300 digital cable channels. His was an era of big band music on passenger trains and when chat rooms involved people physically sitting together in the same room talking face to face. Coaching high school sports during the 1950s meant playing hither and yon in highly modest means.
   He recalls taking his Science Hill basketball team to a rural Tri-Cities area high school where facilities were cramped to say the least. Following the game, Wilkins remembers the team returning to its dressing room and preparing to hit the showers. Nothing peculiar to that except hanging above the shower stalls were several embalmed cats that Wilkins later learned were used for biology class later in the year.
   "I said boys get your clothes on and let's get out of here," Wilkins says with a laugh.
   After leaving his coaching position at Science Hill, he returned to Elizabethton where he went to work as a supervisor for the Beaunit Company. Moving from education into the private sector did not deter Wilkins from staying involved in athletics. He became a member of the city's earliest incarnation of a parks and recreation committee that sought to improve athletic spaces around town.
   Wilkins also began broadcasting football and basketball games for the Elizabethton High School. He had spent several years broadcasting high school basketball for several county teams before becoming known as the "Voice of the Cyclones" for over 20 years. The unofficial title came from telling on-air the story of high school athletics to supporters before the era of television and video cameras.
   Wilkins recalled an especially memorable event before a high school basketball game in the early 1960s when Elizabethton played Oak Ridge. A broadcaster with the rival school approached Wilkins while he was setting up and introduced himself.
   "This young man comes up to me and says, 'Hello, I'm John Ward,'" Wilkins recalls.
   Yes, the John Ward whose abrupt baritone kept college football and basketball fans of the University of Tennessee glued to their radios. Basketball fans remember Ward's trademark basketball exclamation "Bottom!" when a UT baller dropped a jump shot. Unbeknownst to many, the expression was frequently used by Wilkins, including the night he met Ward.
   "I think to this day that is where he got it," Wilkins says.
   Among the players and coaches Wilkins marveled at were Happy Valley basketball standout Danny Webster who Wilkins called the best hoopster he ever saw play and sitting County Mayor Dale Fair who starred with the Cyclones football teams in the early 1970s.
   Wilkins was also fond of nicknaming popular players and coaches such as Happy Valley and later EHS basketball coach John Treadway, who Wilkins dubbed "The Gray Fox", and EHS basketball players such as Harry "The Cat" McKeeson and John "The Gator" Meredith.
   While Wilkins takes a dim view of some parents and coaches at many athletic events who "scream and holler" to belittle 9-year-olds for dropping a fly ball, he maintains his interest in local athletics and continues to watch the evolution of sports and players.
   "I think kids are better athletes, and they are probably coached better," he says.
   Along the way, Wilkins served on the Carter County Court and on former Gov. Winfield Dunn's executive committee seeking ways to improve employment opportunities for disabled citizens. Wilkins was one of several local luminaries who worked to establish services for mental health treatment and physically challenged local residents. The genesis of the local Charlotte Taylor Center came from those early efforts.
   "We started with one little house," Wilkins says. "That is the one thing I am proud of because they helped disabled people."
   Wilkins has two children, son Danny from his first wife is deceased, and he and Kay's daughter Jennifer, who works for the city of Elizabethton. Wilkins and Kay still live at their Pine Hill Road residence where an American flag flies in the side yard.
   Back surgery and sextuple bypass heart surgery have limited Wilkins' physical activity but not his memory or his vigor. His favorite pasttime these days is doting on his three grandchildren.
   "Elizabethton is my hometown," says Wilkins, "and it has been great to me."