Wilkins remembered for sweetness, impact on people

This photo is from Craig Wilkins' early years at Fort Madison Aquinas working with a student on the trombone. Photo courtesy of Heather Madsen.



FORT MADISON – The Fort Madison community lost an icon in music education on Wednesday, but local peers and friends look back on his life with a nod to the accomplishments and joy he brought to the city and its schools.

Former Central Lee, Fort Madison, and Fort Madison Aquinas music teacher Craig Wilkins died Wednesday evening at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

According to his obituary from King-Lynk Funeral Home and Crematory, Wilkins was born on April 9, 1946 in Fort Madison to Don & Dorothy Slee Wilkins.  He married Patricia R. Bell on August 20, 1967 at the Sharon Church in rural Farmington.  He was the band director at Aquinas High School from 1968 to 1976 and band director at Iowa Falls High School from 1977 to 1978.  He then worked at Fort Madison Bank & Trust as a loan originator.  He was the band and choir director at Central Lee High School from 1989 to 1995 and lastly band director at Fort Madison High School from 1996 to 2007.


The family will receive friends from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday March 25, at the Union Presbyterian Church in Fort Madison.  The funeral service will immediately follow at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Union Presbyterian Church.  Following the funeral, a dinner will be held at the church and all are invited. A private family burial will be held at Sharon Cemetery in rural Farmington.  A memorial has been established in Craig’s memory, dedicated to music education.

Local educators remembered Wilkins as a man of humor and passion for students and music.

Former local music teacher Allen Chapman worked side by side with Wilkins for more than a decade and said there was “never” a project that was too big for him.

“It was a just a delight to work with Craig first of all,” Chapman said. “It was a sweet little gift toward the end of my classroom career that Craig came into my life.”

“We both we had a lot of the same instincts and we could finish each others’ sentences. He had a good sense of community obligation and doing projects. It was just so fun personally to have someone like that to do our big musical projects. We shared our students really well, so that everybody could do everything. He just had a great manner. I am really pushy and he would sort of talk me down from my tree and let me not be so pushy. ”

“He just had the best manner around students ever. He was able to get them to do great things and always keep this really sweet, caring manner and I so admired that. I am a choral and vocalist through and through…he was a great instrumentalist and a great singer and he could do it all. He filled in a lot of gaps for me. I think for those 11 or 12 years we were together any youngster in the music department – vocal or instrumental – they experienced some really good teaching and fine, fine performance opportunities.”

One of the first major performance opportunities for Wilkins was taking the Aquinas High School marching band to the 1972 Olympics in Germany.

“His first job was at Aquinas High School. He built that program from nothing to a fine band and fine marching band. They performed at the ’72 Olympics. For them to perform there and be a part of that… in the ’70s for an individual school to take a performing group, that was a trailblazing thing to do. That’s just the way he was. He was always willing to take on a big project. His bands, his show choirs, did traveling to Disney World, New York City, Washington D.C. He just gave some tremendous experiences to southeast Iowa students.

Chapman said Wilkins’ legacy will live on in the people who are now part of the booster programs at Central Lee High School, Fort Madison High School, Holy Trinity High School, and those respective communities.

“I guess his legacy is that there are two generations of students in southeast Iowa who were part of ensembles that he would have directed in one of the high schools. And those are the people I see as the boosters for those music programs. His legacy is love of music and education. It will live on,” Chapman said.

Current FMHS principal Greg Smith remembered Wilkins’ soft approach with staff and students alike.

“Craig was an intelligent, creative professional,” Smith said. “He nearly always had a smile on his face even when the work load was tremendous. He was loved and respected by his students and their parents and brought out the best in both. In the midst of the chaos that high school vocal music can become, I will always remember the twinkle in his eye and the ornery smirk while he’d say, ‘we can make this work’.”

Fort Madison Middle School band instructor Lisa Knipe spent many years with Wilkins as a peer, and more importantly, a friend.

“In 1995, I had survived teaching band at Ft. Madison Middle School for five years, had been married to Jeff Knipe for three years and we were expecting our first child.  I thought those were big events, but God does have a sense of humor.  He placed Craig Wilkins into my life,” Knipe said.

“I had been watching Craig and his bands at Central Lee and was impressed with their performances.  Ft. Madison just happened to have an opening for a high school band director.  I put my plan in place to snag him away from Central Lee.  As my students know, I’m used to getting my way.”

She said Wilkins gave the FMHS band program a boost and helped bring competitive marching and jazz to the school.

“We were all excited to host the first Ft. Madison Marching Band Classic in Richmond Stadium.  But that wasn’t enough.  Craig brought a new event to our little river town with the Big Band Dance night.  Craig and I got a kick out of watching our middle school and high school students attempt dancing with a partner.”

Heather Madsen, who teaches music in Fort Madison’s elementary system, but went to school at Central Lee, thinks of Wilkins as another father.
“I first met Craig in 1989 when he first started teaching choir at Central Lee. The high school choir program had deteriorated to almost nothing,” Madsen said. “I believe there were 11 students enrolled in choir and I was not one of them. Craig found out that I played the piano and he hunted me down in typing class and asked/told me to get my schedule changed because he needed an accompanist.  I did exactly that and had the privilege of watching him turn the choir program completely around. Craig was the reason I made it to school every morning. He was an amazing teacher and mentor.
“I continued accompanying for a few years after high school and when I was 21 I started dating his son. We were together for 15 years and had one son together. We did later divorce but my friendship with Craig continued. So I not only got the experience of having him as a teacher, but also as a father-in-law. He was an awesome dad to me over the years and an amazing Grandpa to my son. I decided when I was about 30 to go back to school and pursue my music education degree. Craig’s and Patty’s continued support and unconditional love made it possible for me to finish my degree.  It meant a lot for me to follow in his footsteps and it wouldn’t have been possible without him.”

Wilkins is survived by his wife Patty Wilkins of Fort Madison, IA; 1-daughter: Ann (Mike) Thomas of Donnellson, IA; 2-sons: Robb (Carrie Sunden) Wilkins of Fort Madison, IA & Scott (Tiffiny) Wilkins of Fort Madison, IA; 3-grandchildren: Ethan Wilkins, Leo Thomas, Lily Thomas and 1-brother: Dennis (Kathy) Wilkins of West Point, IA.  He was preceded in death by his parents and 1-infant brother, Gene.

A young Craig ‘honkin’ in the yard. Photo courtesy of Heather Madsen.
A more relaxed moment with Craig and his ‘toy’ band. Photo courtesy of Heather Madsen.
Mr. Wilkins escorts the band down Avenue G in formation at a Fort Madison parade. Photo courtesy of Heather Madsen.
Mr. Wilkins with the FMHS Class of 2003. Photo courtesy of Heather Madsen.




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