A passion for history ignited fourth-generation Floridian Jerry Wilkinson upon settling in Tavernier in 1988.
He amassed collections of Keys records and unique stories surrounding the island chain. He invested in the community through a library at one local museum and scholarships for students.
Wilkinson passed away on Friday at a hospital in South Miami. The beloved historian, entrepreneur, philanthropist and adventurer who loved stained glass and photography was 94.
Per a biography by the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys, of which he served as president, Wilkinson was born in 1928. He was raised on a farm west of Lakeland and attended Webster Avenue Grammar School and Lakeland High School.
His father passed away in 1944, which led to the sale of the family farm and a move to Tampa. Wilkinson quit high school and attended technical school for welding. He eventually gained employment as a welder in the St. Johns Shipyard in Jacksonville and purchased a portable roller skating rink.
His introduction to the Keys came in 1947 on a motorcycle ride en route to Key West. The young Wilkinson quickly noticed the challenges seeking female friends with swarms of sailors at the Southernmost City. He applied to the Navy but failed a vision test. He subsequently joined the Army Air Corps, which became the Air Force, across the hall. A new military career began for Wilkinson.
He climbed the ranks from drill instructor and special electronics instructor to electronics supervisor at a radar station in Alaska. He retired in 1970 at Homestead Air Force Base as a command sergeant major following 20-plus years of service. His service led him to Guam during the Korean War. He also went to Spain, where he landed in Madrid the night Castro took over Cuba.
Following retirement, he ran several full-service, automatic car washes in Miami. That was until his property was taken via eminent domain for construction of the South Miami Metro Rail Station.
During his time in Miami, he met and married Mary Lou Pierce, of Coral Gables.
Following the eminent domain of the car washes in 1978, the Wilkinsons traveled a circuit that included California, Colorado and the Keys. In California, he attended college classes at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana for the fall semesters of the following 10 years. In Colorado, they rafted the rivers and hiked the mountains. In the Keys, they taught windsurfing.
The Wilkinsons settled in the Keys in 1988 when they purchased a 1958 oceanside home adjacent to Harry Harris Park in Tavernier. There, he dug into the history and preserved the many people and events from the early Keys days. He collected and summarized Keys history for various newspapers and magazines in the Florida Keys. He served as president of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys.
For Wilkinson, finding the historical documentation of the Upper Keys wasn’t an easy task.
He journeyed the southeastern U.S. each summer, copying printed material and photographs on any and all Upper Keys related material. When not traveling and using the bibliographies of copied materials, material was purchased from the National Archives, Library of Congress and south Florida libraries.
“Although all facets of Upper Keys history were of interest, the history of Indian Key, the Key West extension, Overseas Highway, censuses, photographs and hurricanes were of special interest,” his biography reads. “Through his research of the Florida East Coast Railway System, he made the acquaintance of William Krome, son of the FECR construction engineer, who resided in Homestead, Florida. Days were spent interviewing Mr. Krome who generously gave of his time. Next, he met John (Jack) Krome of Norfolk, Virginia while vacationing with his brother William. An agreement was made with the Krome families to compile, copy, bind and disseminate to agencies interested in providing the public with access to the information.”
He wrote weekly and special newspaper articles, including “A Bit of Keys History,” “Mile Markers,” “Key Largo Times” and “Celebrating Our Past.”
Wilkinson said history is what kept him in the Keys, but when asked what keeps him young, Wilkinson told Keys Weekly columnist Emily Steele, “Why, having a wife 25 years younger than you.” Followed by, “Having younger people around keeps you thinking young.”
Wilkinson’s vast collection of rich Keys history is currently housed at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort in Islamorada. The library opened on Sept. 18, 2018 with research and manuscripts from the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, artifacts from the earlier Keys inhabitants and historical records of Florida Keys organizations, to name a few. Wilkinson was also a Florida Keys History and Discovery Foundation emeritus board member.
The 2021 documentary “Adventures in History” recounted Wilkinson’s remarkable quest to save Florida Keys history from being forgotten. Filmed on location in Tavernier, Islamorada, Marathon and Key West, “Adventures in History” runs just under 20 minutes and features stunning aerial footage, archival images, music and multiple interviews with colleagues from museums and archives. The documentary had its North American premiere at the Hollywood Florida Film Festival this November 2021.
Wilkinson established not only a legacy of preserving the past, but also investing in the future. Wilkinson donated $100,000 to the College of the Florida Keys Foundation in 2016 to establish a scholarship that provided funds for worthy CFK students in perpetuity.
Jonathan Gueverra, college president, said he was saddened to learn of Wilkinson’s passing. Earlier in the month, Gueverra said Wilkinson and he spoke and were trying to determine where and when to show a film he helped document on a slave ship that sank off Key Largo.
“Jerry said, ‘Doc, we have to tell these stories so that we all remember the past and how inhumane we can be to each other.’ Jerry was a humanitarian first,” Gueverra said.