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At Large with Tom Williams >> Joe Wilkins is a big part of the community

For well over half a century, Joe Wilkins has been part of the community of Atlantic and Cape May counties.

A successful high school athlete at Holy Spirit, lifeguard in Brigantine, candidate for elected office, practicing attorney and author, Wilkins has devoted most of his life to serving the community since moving here from Philadelphia in the sixth grade.

Beginning this month, Wilkins will write about his experiences and his take on what is happening in the community and the world in a column in the Gazettes, Currents and Leader.

“The way I look at it,” Wilkins said about his column, “I will kind of wander over the landscape. I’m looking forward to writing about different things at different times. I may write about soccer moms, school plays or a round of golf. And I might chime in on Congress or the Governor, too.”

Wilkins was a successful athlete at Holy Spirit, despite a neck injury. He won the Jewish Community Center Run a couple of times (“it was from Virginia Avenue to Hackney’s and back,” he says) and he ran for the Spartans.

“We set up a meet with Cape May,” Wilkins remembers. “They had no track runners and we had no field men, so each side had to agree to participate in the other’s events to get a meet together.  I ran the mile, but agreed to also enter the shot put. Their shot put guy was sick the day of the meet, so I became probably the first New Jersey high school athlete to win both the mile race and the shot put on the same day. Same sort of thing happened at the state championships.  I trained for the mile and won a respectable fifth place in the state championships. While I was resting, we learned the javelin throw had been suspended in North Jersey because somebody got killed while crossing a field when a North Jersey team was practicing the javelin throw. To even have a state championship event, you had to have at least six contestants. Some of the mid-Jersey schools had javelin throwers who would have been cheated out of their event if they couldn't get some more contestants. I had never thrown a javelin, but agreed to try. The result was that I came in fifth in both the mile and the javelin on the same day. Weird, but fun.”    

After high school, Wilkins graduated from LaSalle University and got his law degree from Catholic University in Washington D.C.

“I was working at a community action agency in Millville,” he said, “while I was in law school. So, almost every day I would get up and drive from Brigantine to Millville, then drive to D.C. in the afternoon for law classes, then back to Brigantine at night.”

Wilkins later became the chief attorney at Cape-Atlantic Legal Service, working with five other attorneys and handling about 50,000 clients. He also worked in a federal anti-poverty program, which required him to travel the country, visiting migrant camps, reservations and coal mines.

“It was quite an experience,” Wilkins said, “and very educational.”

In his private practice, Wilkins has dealt with every type of law, from working with the poor to representing corporations. One of his criminal trials led to his first book.

“I was actually researching a book about Tom Reed, a former Speaker of the House,” he said, “when my kids encouraged me to write a book about one of my cases. It was a story I had told them many times. So, I spent six weeks at a friend’s place in New Orleans writing the book.”

The book is “The Skin Game”, a fictional account of one of his cases and the Atlantic County legal system and it was very successful. He recently finished the book he had started first – “The Speaker Who Locked Up The House” – and it has also been well received.

The chief historian of the U.S. Capital Historical Society invited him to speak at their meeting. A video of that speech will be shown on The Stockton Channel this month. The Senate historian also approved the book and Wilkins got a letter from President Bill Clinton about it, as well.

“I’m pleased with the reception it has received,” he said. “Ambassador Bill Hughes helped me a lot in lining up resources to research the book. It was challenging, but interesting and a lot of fun. I’ve always been interested in politics and I have a point of view. I think the people you meet in politics are usually very interesting, whether you agree with them or not. I never could hate anybody just because their politics are different from mine.”

Wilkins married Maryanne when he was 19. They have five children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “They are very important to me,” he said. “I’m a family-oriented guy.”

Joe Wilkins has done a lot in his 73 years – from the doubles row in the lifeguard races to writing speeches for vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver. His experiences have given him a unique background to offer his views on just about anything. And his sense of humor adds enjoyment to the stories.

Reading his weekly column should be fun and informative.      

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 Words of Wisdom: “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”

 

(Lawrence Kasdan, film producer-director and screenwriter)

 


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