Not long after I retired from the Foreign Service in 1994, I volunteered for the Democratic Party and found myself working the polls at Dogwood Elementary School on Election Day. That is where I met Dr. Thomas A. Wilkins. He was working on one side of the polls’ entrance, I on the other. He was talking amiably with people coming to vote and handing them sample ballots and literature supporting Republicans. I wondered why.
Being a transplanted Marylander back from many years abroad, I was ill informed and naïve about my new setting. I was surprised to see a black man working that side of the street, and I was curious. I struck up a conversation with him. We hit if off immediately and agreed to have lunch soon.
A couple days later, we had lunch and Tom gave me a primer on politics in the old Confederacy. Why was he working for a party deservedly likely to receive a tiny fraction of the African-American vote? In response, he reminded me what Virginia was like until relatively recently. When he grew up in the small town of Lawrenceville, south of Richmond, the Democratic Byrd machine ruled the state. He couldn’t go to all-white public schools in segregated Virginia. Jim Crow laws made it difficult for blacks to vote at all. In the Byrd days, we couldn’t have sat down to have lunch together in a Virginia restaurant. There were many good reasons not to be a Democrat while being black even into the 1970s. While things had changed a lot, Tom still worked for Republican Tom Davis, a man whom he regarded as a friend and believed could be a positive force in politics.
I soon learned that Dr. Thomas Wilkins had made a lot of friends in both parties and throughout Reston. In fact, Tom was not only one of the nicest, best liked people in Reston, but was also one of the most widely respected.
Tom grew up in rural Lawrenceville, Va. and graduated from nearby St. Paul’s College, an all-black school. He went on to New York City, where he would meet Delores, the love of his life, and attend New York University. He served in the U.S. Army and fought in Korea where he was severely wounded and classified as disabled by a pain that never left him. After the war, he and Delores married and he earned his Ph.D. in public administration from NYU.
Tom went on to a career at the U.S. Department of Labor. In fact, he was the first African-American from DOL to be nominated for, and attend, the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, Va. In 1970, he and Delores moved to Reston. When I asked Tom why they chose Reston, he told me it was the place where they felt most welcome. They both loved Reston, engaging in many community activities to help make it an even better place.
Tom’s extraordinary civic and community devotion earned him leadership positions and awards that by themselves could fill a book. He chaired a dozen boards and commissions at the county and state level. He was given the county’s “Lord Fairfax” title. Both the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the Governor of Virginia recognized Tom’s achievements by declaring “Tom Wilkins Day.” But Reston was the center of Tom’s life, and within Reston he focused his exceptional energies on making a better future for youth. He was the first African American to be elected president of the Reston Association Board of Directors and was an early winner of the coveted Best of Reston Award.
In Tom’s view, I think his crowning achievement was his role in founding and building the Martin Luther King Foundation. The foundation raises money for scholarships for deserving and needy Reston area high school seniors to help them realize their dream of going on to college. When the foundation had raised sufficient funds to award its first scholarship, Tom assured that it was named for Delores Wilkins, who had shared his dream of a better future for the kids.
The passing of Tom Wilkins leaves a void in Reston, one that I doubt we can fill.