The son of a pastor and grandson of an evangelist, George Wilkins Jr. used to come home from school to find gospel great Mahalia Jackson chatting in the parlor of his family home near 43rd and King Drive.
Everyone expected he’d explore becoming a minister. But the seminary didn’t feel right. Still, telling his father he didn’t want to become a preacher “was one of the hardest conversations he ever had to have,” said his son Craig.
Instead, Mr. Wilkins studied Fortran, COBOL and other early computer languages through correspondence courses. He became a chief systems analyst during a 36-year career with the Chicago Board of Education, where his responsibilities included writing software for payroll checks and preparing for the anticipated confusion of “Y2K” at the start of 2000.
Mr. Wilkins, 81, who had been in failing health, died Sept. 19 at home in Beverly.
He grew up one of six children in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood. His grandfather, Bishop Lucius C. Page, was an evangelist for the Church of God in Christ who preached at revivals around the country.
Young George had a paper route for the Chicago Defender and delivered groceries, milk and ice. For a Saturday treat, he’d take his brothers to Randolph Scott movie Westerns downtown or at the Tivoli theater in Woodlawn.
At DuSable High School, he appreciated the dapper style of fellow student Don Cornelius, who went on to create “Soul Train.”
“He said Don Cornelius dressed the same as he did on ‘Soul Train’ in high school — with a suit and tie,” Craig Wilkins said.
His friend John Abrams said young George worked as a stage technician for Walter Dyett, the famed DuSable music instructor who taught Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington and many other future stars.
One of his favorite high school memories involved driving to Champaign in 1954 with a carload of friends to cheer on the legendary DuSable Panthers basketball team, the first all African-American team to make the state finals and, according to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, “the finest basketball team ever developed in the Chicago Public League.”
In those Jim Crow days, young George and his friends “had to sleep in the car and eat in the car,” his son said. DuSable lost to Mount Vernon High after a series of controversial calls. Mr. Wilkins “still talked about how that team was cheated,” his son said.
Mr. Wilkins studied architecture for a year at Howard University, but his scholarship money ran out, and he returned home.
In 1960, he was drafted into the Army, where he enjoyed serving in Paris, according to his son. “He was a jazz buff, and there were a lot of people of color in Paris,” he said.
While working at Montgomery Ward in Chicago, he spotted Velma Hazlett in the company cafeteria and asked her out. She used to joke the only reason she said yes was because he invited her for “a soda.”
“She thought that it was so cute because, in Chicago, we say ‘pop,’ ” Craig Wilkins said.
They raised their sons Keith and Craig in Roseland. Mr. Wilkins worked as a postal carrier while his wife began her rise from teller to branch manager for what’s now the Chase Bank at 66th and Stony Island.
After studying data entry at night, he landed his job with Chicago’s schools. When he retired in 1998, one of the first things he did was to get rid of the beeper he hated for interrupting time with his family.
Whether it was driving through potentially hostile towns to see the DuSable Panthers play or studying to be a systems analyst, his son said Mr. Wilkins defied the era’s limitations for African-American men. “I just don’t think he acknowledged them,” he said.
He had friends he’d known for 70 years. And he was a founder of the Arrogant Gents social club. One of its first big events featured Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler.
He and his wife enjoyed the nightlife. She would step out in mink. He favored cufflinks and fedoras.
The couple enjoyed the “Pittsburgh Cycle” of August Wilson plays, once seeing Charles Dutton and Rocky Carroll in “The Piano Lesson” on Broadway. They also attended shows at Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater.
He embraced everyone and expected the best of them, leading some of Craig Wilkins’ friends to tell him: “I grew up without a father, but I learned how to be a father while watching your father.”
Mr. Wilkins missed his wife dreadfully after her death last year. “That was the light that made him happy,” Craig Wilkins said.
In addition to his sons Keith and Craig, he is survived by his brothers Kenneth and Laurence and two grandchildren. Services have been held.