Val Wilkie Jr. was headmaster at a venerable New England boarding school when the heirs of a fortune made in the rough oil fields of Texas asked him to move to Fort Worth to head up the family foundation.
His background was not in business or philanthropy. His bachelor’s degree from Yale University and his master’s from Harvard were both in history. That’s the subject he later taught.
He had, however, proved his exceptional toughness during World War II.
Mr. Wilkie accepted the offer from Perry and Nancy Lee Bass and moved to Fort Worth in 1973 to take over the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, where he remained until he retired as executive vice president in 2011.
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After his death Tuesday morning, Mr. Wilkie was remembered as a visionary, an advocate for education, a wise planner, a motivator, a dreamer and mentor.
He died after a short illness at home in Sunapee, N.H., where he had moved this year. He was 91.
“He was to me what he was to so many people — just a generous mentor with his wisdom and his council,” said Pete Geren, current chief executive officer of the Richardson foundation. “He had a heart of gold for others and there are so many lives he touched in a very personal way.
“He was generous with his time, never met a stranger, and he and the current board members — Ed Bass, Sid Bass and Lee Bass — were partners in some of the most important enhancements of our community in Fort Worth and in Texas.”
Mr. Wilkie was executive vice president of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation for 38 years. Under his guidance, the foundation awarded about $300 million in grants. The foundation supported programs to better train and recruit teachers and to create more access to healthcare in urban areas. It also assisted programs for needy children.
The foundation supported many arts organizations, including the Fort Worth Opera and symphony and youth orchestras.
Ed Bass, chairman of the board of the foundation, said: “Val Wilkie was a man of exceptional qualities. He had an innate sense of generosity, consideration and compassion, which he applied with keen intellect and insight. His work in our community and our state multiplied several-fold the value of the foundation's philanthropy. He will long be remembered for his role in improving public education in Texas. To me and my family, he was a friend, adviser, mentor and role model. We will miss him but not forget his legacy and friendship.”
Shot down over Holland
Valleau Wilkie Jr. was born July 3, 1923, to Valleau Wilkie Sr. and Amelia Parry Wilkie in Summit, N.J., and his youth was spent on the East Coast. World War II interrupted his studies at Yale.
Mr. Wilkie became a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and was co-pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress in bombing runs over Germany. His plane was shot down Jan. 11, 1944, over Holland during a mission in which the Allies lost nearly 100 planes.
After bailing out, Mr. Wilkie evaded capture for five months, living with the Dutch underground. At one point, he was hidden in a farmhouse with a local Jewish woman. On another occasion, he hid from German soldiers in a closet with a false back. Eventually, an informant turned him in, and the Gestapo interrogated him for a month, getting nothing out of him.
From June 1944 to April 1945, Mr. Wilkie was a prisoner of war in two camps. He recorded his story in the book Recollections in 2001.
During his imprisonment, he said, he read history books provided by the Red Cross to occupy his mind.
Focus on education
When he returned home, he resumed his education and then pursued a career as an educator until the Basses called in 1973. Their son Robert Bass had attended the Massachusetts school where Mr. Wilkie was headmaster.
Much of Mr. Wilkie’s focus during his years at the helm of the Richardson foundation was on improving education. In the late 1980s, he established the Sid W. Richardson Foundation Forum, which convened state and national leaders to focus on key issues facing educators.
Geren said Mr. Wilkie helped improve education across the state and “was really one of the visionaries in Fort Worth when it came to enhancing the cultural amenities.”
Even organizations that didn’t receive grants from the foundation benefited from the “mentoring that he offered freely and the vision he shared with the whole community,” Geren said.
Mr. Wilkie received many awards including being the first recipient of the Kids Who Care Heart with Wings Award in 1997; the Golden Deeds award from the Exchange Club of Fort Worth in 2007; and being honored in 2009 by the Volunteers of America Texas for his lifetime contributions.
“He is a giant among giants, “ said the late Mayor Bob Bolen in a June 2011 Star-Telegram article about Mr. Wilkie’s retirement.
Bolen said that Mr. Wilkie had “done so much behind the scenes for this city that there’s not one of us who could probably tell you everything he has done. He does it first class.”
Former Mayor Mike Moncrief said Tuesday that Mr. Wilkie “has always been a voice of reason for our city and he never lost his focus on the importance of education with our younger generations.”
Mr. Wilkie was also “one hell of a tennis player,” Moncrief said. “He was one of the kindest, most thoughtful, compassionate men Rosie and I have ever known.”
Survivors include daughters Jan Wilkie and Sondra Wilkie of Fort Worth; son Robert V. Wilkie of Sunapee, N.H.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
The family will have a private memorial service Wednesday in New London, N.H.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984