Joe Wilkins was always a good guy to have on your team.
Wilkins — born Alfred Joseph Wilkins but called Joe from the time he was born 76 years ago until he died last month — first got his name into local newspapers as a football star for Holy Spirit High School, where he graduated in 1955.
He got a football scholarship to Wake Forest University, but came back home after a year or so to become a plumber and join Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 322. He moved his way up in the union until he became a business agent and finally business manager, the top job.
Meanwhile, he and his now-late wife, Gail, were having seven kids, who range from 41 to 53 today. And in 1980, Joe started getting his name into the papers again when he ran for City Council in his longtime hometown, Pleasantville. He won and served 12 years as councilman — nine of them as the president — before he lost a Democratic primary in 1992.
(Another Joe Wilkins was also active in local Democratic politics at the same time, but the other is a lawyer who’s now a columnist for The Current newspapers. Wilkins, the lawyer, says the two were a year apart at Holy Spirit — where people often mixed them up because of their shared name. To further complicate things, their children also went to Holy Spirit together, and Wilkins the labor leader, later moved to Galloway Township — where Wilkins the lawyer lives.)
But the union leader had plenty to keep him busy by the 1990s. Jim Kehoe, Local 322’s business manager now, credits Wilkins with being a major factor in the push for a project that kept members of Local 322 — and several other unions — working for years in Atlantic City.
“Joe seemed to know everyone, and he had a great sense for how to get things done by relationships,” says Kehoe, who’s also chairman of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, where Wilkins was a commissioner from 1991 to 1994. Kehoe calls Wilkins a mentor and says, “He used to tell me that the more relationships you have, the more you’re going to get done.”
As a landmark sign of the truth of that belief, Kehoe offers the Atlantic City Convention Center, which opened in 1997 after a long fight to get funding for the quarter-billion-dollar job.
“Although Joe was a Democrat, he was able to work across the aisle with Bill Gormley,” the then-Atlantic County state senator, a Republican and the chief political backer of building the center. Kehoe says that “it was Joe Wilkins who brought the trades (unions) along to be helpful ... and who would bring busloads of guys to Trenton” to support the project.
Kehoe praises Gormley’s “political skills, but it was also the relationship that Joe had with not only Republicans like Bill Gormley, but also the Democrats on the other side to get the bills passed that we needed to get the Convention Center built.”
Gormley confirmed that history Monday.
“Joe was just a generally great individual, and he really had a wonderful concern for the area and wanted see the best for the area,” the longtime senator said.
“He was someone you could rely on to give a reasoned strategy, and one that wasn’t going to inflame. Joe tried to get things done — he didn’t care about the limelight,” Gormley added. “He was a major voice for labor, but he was also a major voice for Atlantic City and Atlantic County, and he was able to merge the two … to achieve goals in the common interest. Joe was a very bright guy, a great family man, and a great athlete. He was special.”
With that family, he was also a very reasonable dad who didn’t talk a whole lot about his political successes, says his oldest child, Joe Wilkins Jr., now of Oakton, Va.
“He never made it a big deal. He held a lot of positions in the course of his life, but when he won something, he came home just like it was any other day,” the son says.
“I couldn’t ask for a better father. He was a fair, honest disciplinarian, and when he told you to do something, you knew you had to do it, or there were consequences,” he added. “We had chores to do and ... if you didn’t do them right, you had to do them again. ... We complained, but when he came back in 15 minutes, it would be done.”
After his wife died, Joe married the former Kathleen Marczyk, the widow of his old football coach and old friend, Stan Marczyk Sr., in 2000.
“He was with the union, then with the state,” said Kathleen — Joe became an assistant labor commissioner after he left Local 322.
“We enjoyed life together, went to a lot of baseball, basketball and football games, to see both his grandchildren and mine,” added Kathleen, who has eight children from her first marriage, and 24 grandchildren — and Joe had 20 grandchildren on his side.
But in 2007, he got back into politics, running for state Assembly.
He lost, but still, “he enjoyed doing that,” Kathleen said. “Because Joe was very social and very friendly. He liked meeting people.”
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