MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - Dozens of men and women shook his hand, exchanged hugs or posed for pictures with Robert Wilkins after his speech Thursday afternoon in the Cornerstone Center for the Arts Colonnade Room.
Wilkins smiled throughout as he caught up with old friends. One person after another walked up to him and said, “I’m so proud of you” or “It’s an honor to meet you.” Wilkins humbly responded, “Thank you” a countless number of times and posed for his final picture about 45 minutes after delivering an uplifting speech at the 22nd annual Muncie Black Expo Luncheon.
The 1982 Northside High School graduate shared his remarkable journey from a self-described “scraggly” kid who earned his first paycheck at a Rax Roast Beef restaurant to his current position on the United States Court of Appeals.
He credited his mother, Joyce Wilkins, first and foremost for his success.
“There’s not really anything I could say to do justice to my mother,” he told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1nKx7Ux ). “She made so many sacrifices along the way and did so many things to give me opportunities.”
Wilkins recalled his mother insisting he find a job and Rax hiring him at the age of 14 or 15.
“I think I could barely see over the counter,” he said as the crowd of 360 responded in laughter.
His employment at Rax paved his path to prestigious Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He said Rax managers suggested Wilkins major in engineering at Rose-Hulman.
Wilkins followed their advice and studied chemical engineering, but by his senior year, his interest in engineering waned and he decided to pursue law.
Indiana University and Northwestern stood out as two possibilities in the Midwest, but Wilkins applied to other prominent law schools.
“The advice I was given back then was apply to a few schools that you’re pretty confident you can get into, but apply to some schools that would be kind of your dream schools because you never know what might happen,” he said.
Harvard fell in the dream-school category, but Wilkins nearly passed on typing out its application. He said he held the application over a trash can when, “Something said, ‘Oh, come on,’ and I jerked my hand back and I typed up the application, and I was as surprised as anyone when I was admitted.”
Baron Gemmer, a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brother who graduated from Rose-Hulman a year earlier, paid for the financially-strapped Wilkins to visit Harvard for orientation.
“He lived near Philadelphia and said, ‘Pack your stuff. I’ll drive you to Philadelphia, get you a train ticket from Philadelphia to Boston, and I’ll get you a plane ticket back to Indianapolis.’”