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Graduation Year: 1967
Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science
Founder, the Wilkinson Group
"After my four years at Duke, I left with the necessary skills to succeed in whatever pursuit I chose in life."
The year was 1967 when Jerry C. Wilkinson graduated from Duke University’s School of Engineering with his BSE in electrical engineering. Four years earlier, Wilkinson arrived at Duke’s campus site for the very first time. While Wilkinson enjoyed mathematics and science as a high school student, he possessed no set itinerary for his future plans. Wilkinson knew that he enjoyed engineering, but at the time, he hadn’t entertained the idea that 10 years later he would found several Georgia-based companies and serve as one of Duke’s most esteemed alumnae.
During Wilkinson’s undergraduate years, Duke carried a different image than its present reputation as one of the nation’s top ten schools. While scholars, researchers, and the academic world at large regarded Duke as one of the Southeast’s most prestigious institutions, many were biding their time until Duke achieved international recognition. At that time, the School of Engineering lacked a department of biomedical engineering and the many interdisciplinary studies that it now shares with departments throughout the University. Interestingly enough, Wilkinson’s younger brother would later be one of the very first Duke students to graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering.
Wilkinson strongly attributes his later success to the experiences he benefited from as a Duke engineering student. Long hours of studying and working in labs instilled in Wilkinson an appreciation for a hard-earned education. During this time, Wilkinson, like so many other engineering students, took great pains debating whether he should pursue this field as a professional career goal. In the end, Wilkinson decided that an engineering degree provided passage into a technologically driven world.
“After my four years at Duke, I left with the necessary skills to succeed in whatever pursuit I chose in life.”
While working as a summer intern at Lockheed Industrial Corporation, Wilkinson developed an interest in business and finance as well. His experience in industry gave Wilkinson the opportunity to witness how business and science comprise an interdependent relationship. In 1969, Wilkinson graduated with a MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. He landed his first job at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in New Jersey, an organization that promotes the teaching profession by encouraging prospective students to pursue their doctorates. The Wilson Foundation also focuses on garnishing support for rural and small colleges. Wilkinson’s interest in education was partly derived from his family’s long history of involvement in the teaching profession. “I come from a family of teachers. Two sisters, a brother, and a uncle are all teachers. My family is full of educators.” At this time, Wilkinson also directed his attention towards the activities of Spelman College, a small women’s college. Wilkinson believes that all of these experiences helped lay the foundation for his future involvement in the Duke community “This time impressed upon me how very important a well-developed education can be to the future success of a person.”
In the summer of 1972, Wilkinson completed an executive management program from the Harvard Graduate School of Business. Shortly thereafter, Wilkinson and another Duke alumnus bought out a wholesale plumbing business and then subsequently opened several new branches. Their work was soon recognized in a cover article of Supply House Times. In 1984, Wilkinson and his partner sold the business to a British company and Wilkinson pursued his interest in property management. The following year Wilkinson founded the Wilkinson Group, a management company which currently controls over 30 property complexes across the Southeastern United States. The Wilkinson Group consists of two subsidiaries, Wilkinson Properties and Wilkinson Construction. Wilkinson Properties manages the company’s holdings and seeks other potential properties to buy while Wilkinson Construction ensures the company’s continued expansion. Wilkinson stresses that he enjoys his work and plans to continue pressing forward as long as he has “a fire in the belly.”
While cultivating business interests and assisting other institutions, Wilkinson maintained a close relationship with Duke and its School of Engineering. Wilkinson believes that many solutions to current problems reside within education.
“In recent years education has not received the due attention it deserves. I feel education holds the solution to many of todays social ills. Without an education there exists a huge gap that can’t be breached as easily as it once was.”
Wilkinson cites James B. Duke, a Duke University endower, whom he believes adhered to the same principles. “With the exception of religion, education is the most civilizing influence.”
Wilkinson took the words of James B. Duke to heart by becoming increasingly involved in the University’s community. Since 1967, Wilkinson has served as his class’ Engineering Agent. In addition, he has participated as an active member of several Duke committees, which include the Engineering Dean’s Council, the President’s Executive Council for the Annual Fund, and the Annual Fund Executive Committee. His appointment last year to the Engineering Dean’s Council makes Wilkinson optimistic that his voice of past experience will provide guidance to students embarking on professional careers. Wilkinson remains convinced that a successful business man or woman must possess the ability to communicate effectively and succinctly.
“Students should learn to communicate. They should do everything to learn to write, to listen and to speak on their feet. They should always continue to work on their communication skills, for if they can’t communicate effectively, then all their hard work and effort means mute.”
Wilkinson attributes his grasp of this tool to the classroom experiences he had at Duke. Wilkinson hopes that his recommendations and suggestions will prompt students to recognize the need for a well-articulated voice in the business and professional world.
Wilkinson keeps his word as many witness at Parents’ Weekend this year. Wilkinson serve as the keynote speaker for the Engineering Seminar. In his discussion, Wilkinson urged parents to invest in Duke by encouraging other students to join its rich community and inviting businesses to learn more about its diverse population of future entrepreneurs and innovators. Wilkinson also encouraged students to invest more of their time and energy into Duke, because in the future they will realize the “pivotal role” these past four years have played in the construction of their futures. “It is amazing what a Duke education can do for you. Just think about it, Duke is now the fourth best university in the country. I can tell you from my own personal experience that a Duke education opens a lot of doors around the world.”
Originally published in DukEngineer, Fall 1996. Written by James Costello, a senior in Biomedical Engineering.