Harry T. Wilks, lifelong Hamiltonian and community champion, died shortly after midnight Tuesday at his home, according to his daughters Barbara Wilks and Nanci Lanni. It was his 89th birthday.
Throughout his over six decades of business, leadership, and service to the city of Hamilton, Wilks, a former attorney, served on multiple boards and on City Council. He advocated for arts and education in Hamilton, organizing various charities through the Hamilton Community Foundation and delivering a gift of $3 million in 2012 to his alma mater, Miami University. His name hangs on many buildings on the Miami campuses in Hamilton and Oxford, and the Hamilton campus’ lecture series is named for him.
“He was a visionary,” said John Guidugli, Hamilton Community Foundation president. “Every time we talked, he always had a new idea to improve things (in Hamilton).”
Though Wilks was born in Chicago on March 11, 1925, he was a Hamiltonian from age 2. He attended St. Ann’s and St. Peter’s elementary schools and Wilson Junior High, and was junior and senior class president at Hamilton High School, as well as a varsity basketball player.
After serving a four-year Army stint in the Pacific during World War II, he attended Ohio University and Miami University, ultimately receiving his law degree from the University of Cincinnati. After marrying his high school sweetheart, Patricia Stoll, he joined attorney Clem Pater’s law practice in Hamilton.
Real estate purchases and stock shares brought Wilks the wealth he later bestowed upon the Hamilton community, including his many years of charitable giving to causes like the American Red Cross, the Great Miami Valley YMCA and the Cincinnati Opera, where he funded the Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director, served on the board, and kept the same box seats for more than 40 years.
Throughout his business endeavors, Wilks pursued his early political activities by serving on Hamilton City Council from 1966 to 1967 and on multiple boards throughout the city.
“I’ve known a lot of people that have contributed to the city of Hamilton … but Harry gave more than really anybody,” said Courtney Combs, former Hamilton City Council member, Butler County commissioner and state representative.
While Combs and Wilks didn’t always see eye to eye politically — Wilks ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic for state representative in 1990 — Combs will remember Wilks for his generosity and “gruff personality.”
“He’d just come out and tell you,” Combs said.
The Butler County Democratic Party also noted his strong political and community efforts.
“Mr. Wilks has a long history of supporting local and statewide Democratic candidates and causes,” said Dave Spurrier, the county Democratic Party spokesperson. “His advice and counsel will surely be missed.”
His contributions to the arts and education in Hamilton were ample. He was a founding member of the Hamilton Civic Theatre, organized in 1959, as well as an early funder of Kyle Braid scholarships, sending students to Colorado for leadership training. A member of the Butler County Business Hall of Fame, Wilks was named “Hamilton Citizen of the Year” by the Chamber of Commerce in 1990 for his significant contributions to Miami University and other civic causes, according to Chamber President Kenny Craig. Craig remembered Wilks as “a business and thought leader in the community.”
Perhaps Wilks’ largest physical legacy is Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park, which he founded in 1987 when he saved the more than 350 acres from development.
“What (Wilks) did at Pyramid Park is unmatched,” said Mike Dingeldein, architect and owner of Community Design Alliance in Hamilton. “He was tremendous in helping my generation take over what his generation did to develop the city.”
Pyramid Hill is one of the largest sculpture parks in the country, boasting a monumental outdoor collection overlooking the Great Miami River and filled with artistic and cultural opportunities for the Hamilton community. Wilks’ underground home sits in the middle of the park, below the blue pyramid from which the park gets its name. For his accomplishments, Wilks was awarded the Cincinnati Post Corbett Lifetime Achievement Award for the Arts in 2003.
“Pyramid Hill was his favorite mission,” said Guidugli. “He didn’t just sit in his office; he worked there every day.”
His dedication to local education was prolific, especially to his alma maters. He established the Harry T. Wilks Foundation, through which he enabled local high school students to study classic art and history in Italy every year. Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller noted, in particular, Wilks’ Educator of Excellence awards through the Harry T. Wilks Hamilton Celebrates Education Program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.
“Whenever I saw him, he was always very pleasant,” said Moeller. “But you could look at him, and you could tell he was thinking about the next project (for Hamilton).”
Wilks provided ample funding and opportunities to Hamilton City Schools through sponsored contests in local schools to foster interest in geography and history, two of his favorite subjects.
“Harry … will be remembered for his intellect, his passion for learning, and his urgency to make education an important community priority,” said Hamilton School Superintendent Janet Baker. “He was unwavering in his desire to open the minds and hearts of students.”
Wilks was a passionate advocate of furthering Miami University’s academic and cultural opportunities, serving on its board of trustees.
“Harry was one of the most creative and imaginative people I have ever met,” said Miami University President David Hodge. “He lived life with an irrepressible joy that inspired everyone around him.”
The Harry T. Wilks Conference Center and Harry T. Wilks Lecture Series reflect Wilks’ two lifelong causes of furthering the arts and increasing educational opportunity. The lecture series brings speakers of international renown to lecture free of charge.
“The university is very proud of our longtime relationship with Harry,” said Perry Richardson, campus communications officer for Miami University Hamilton. “(The lecture series) is the premier lecture series for the year for us…we would fill the auditorium for every lecture.”
The Harry T. Wilks Theater at the Armstrong Student Center, a 500-seat performance center, was dedicated this year at Miami University, after Wilks made a $3 million gift to the school in 2012, bringing his total financial support to more than $9 million. The Wilks Scholarship program provides approximately 15 scholarships per year at the Miami Hamilton campus, and the Harry T. Wilks Leadership Institute at the Oxford campus develops ethical and transformational leadership and ensures decision-making should be based on enduring principles.
Though his unmatched initiatives and projects would confine any man to the city, he was an avid traveler and, according to his family, “a man of the world.” He set foot on all seven continents, including a trip to Antarctica and a trip behind the “iron curtain.” His family remembers fondly summer vacations traveling around the world, sometimes towing an airstream trailer.
Butler County Commissioner Don Dixon, whose friendship with Wilks began 45 years ago, will miss being able to have Wilks as a soundboard for ideas.
“If you ever needed him, he was there,” he said. “No matter what the subject was … he was always thinking outside the box.”
Wilks’ daughters declined to comment further on Tuesday.
Wilks was preceded in death by his sister, Margerite “Marge” Handel and brother Francis “Deed” Wilks. He is survived by his two daughters, Barbara Wilks and Nanci Lanni and Nanci’s husband Nick; his brother, Bill Wilks; four grandchildren; one great grandson; 5 nephews; 2 nieces; 7 great nieces and nephews; and long time friend Carol Kincer.
COMMUNITY REMEMBERS HARRY T. WILKS
When the Journal-News first reported the death of Harry T. Wilks on Tuesday, dozens of people shared their memories of the philanthropist on the Journal-News Facebook page.
Shannon Roark Evers: Thank you, Mr. Wilks. You helped me through nursing school with a scholarship that I got through Miami Hamilton. You have done great things for Hamilton!
Mindy Roark Hardewig: Rest in Peace Mr. Wilks and know that you changed so many lives with your generosity. Thank you for 4 years of college!
Jimmie Weidner: I still remember working on his houses down in German Village back in the '90s. Good man, thrifty with the nickel. Loved his city though.
Dave Swigonski: He will be remembered for his contributions to the community. He was a huge benefactor.
Angie Pieper Gray: He shared his love of art and history with many. May he rest in peace.
Pat Elliott: How sad..he did so much for Hamilton and the surrounding communities…he was a visionary!!!