Bobby Wilkins Concludes 22-Year Run as HHS Principal - TribPapers

Bobby Wilkins Concludes 22-Year Run as HHS Principal

Retiring Hendersonville High School principal Bobby Wilkins speaks at the official opening of the fully renovated campus. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Hendersonville – Bold visionary Bobby Wilkins is retiring this month after serving as Hendersonville High School principal for nearly this entire millennium, capping off his 44-year educational career in the first full academic year of renovated HHS.

Asst. Principal/Athletic Director Laura Bruegger was promoted Monday to succeed Wilkins.

Bobby Wilkins is a red-blooded Bearcat — as a student, athlete, coach, sports fan, teacher, administrator, and successful lobbyist to keep the HHS campus where it is. He is hailed as a very caring and hands-on administrator, consistent and firm in policies. Many praise his charisma, and tension-easing quips.

Todd King, HHS Class of 1990, said that through the years Wilkins showed “quick-witted humor. If you try to out-wit him, you will lose.” King admires how Wilkins figures the right way, not the easy way. That’s super rare.” He lauded Wilkins’ “high integrity” and how “he doesn’t play favorites.”

Veteran HHS boys’ head coach Marvin Featherstone was Wilkins’ sparkplug point guard on the 1986-87 1A state champion Bearcats. He confirmed that “Bobby goes ‘by the book.’ He wants us to have fun. But he expects you to do your (player’s) job.” Featherstone coached boys’ hoops when Wilkins was principal of HMS in 1993-2001 (after two years as an assistant principal) and then HHS (2001-23.

Wilkins swapped jobs with then-HHS principal Chuck Pressley in 2001, a month before the 9/11 terrorist attack on his birthday.

Wilkins taught math in 1979-91 at HHS. Since 1979, “technology is the big difference” in teaching methods, Wilkins said. “We did everything by hand” such as logging attendance or grade averages after computing them.

Yet then as now, “you have to develop relationships” with pupils to get them to learn. Relationships are also critical for a principal, who acts as the faculty’s head coach. A supreme emotional challenge is helping students and staff deal with student deaths or other sudden tragedy.

“‘Do the right thing’ is our (HHS) motto” for decades, Wilkins said.

Wilkins is past president of the NCHSAA board that sets policies. The 1975 HHS grad was a basketball standout. At 6-foot-5, he was a tall point guard for UNC-Asheville in college. He coached HHS varsity boys basketball from 1984-5 to ‘92-3. He led the Cats to state basketball titles in 1986-87 (after a state runner-up finish in ‘85-6) and in 1991-92. He led the golf team to the 1A state crown in 1990, when the Bearcats out-shot all teams statewide on Finley Golf Course in Chapel Hill.

When entering Jim Pardue Gym, one typically sees Bobby Wilkins by the wall at right. Bobby and Gwen Wilkins’ sons Jeff, Jon, and Sam excelled as HHS athletes.

Bobby Wilkins always had a cameo role in senior plays. His is a family of performers and educators. His father George Wilkins, Sr. was Bruce Drysdale Elementary principal. Bobby’s sister Dinky taught. George, Jr. was the longtime Flat Rock Playhouse music director. Wendy Wilkins was a star FRP actress. Brother Jimmy is an architect.

What is a Bearcat? George Wilkins, Sr. would say, “Strong as a Bear, Quick as a Cat.”

Do What’s Right

As principal, Wilkins regularly dropped in on HHS classes. “I talk to almost every teacher every day,” he said. He is impressed how teachers are “making the kids their number one priority, putting in extra time to make sure the kids get what they need.”

UNC-bound Cooper King, the new HHS male grad with the highest (3.95) grade-point average, said that Principal Wilkins is “respected by everyone, and he’ll stand up for anyone.”

Wilkins is a “stand-up guy” for Hendersonville High School structures. Todd King, Class of 1990 and Cooper’s father, sees Wilkins’ most triumphant legacy of all as preserving the Stillwell Building that is now 97 years old. Wilkins once noted rats were spotted in it.

But he knew its historical significance, and neoclassical architectural appeal including its auditorium with gallant columns where the Move Up awards assembly was held Friday.

“Mr. Wilkins helped preserve the school’s tradition, history and legacy,” King said. “His fortitude to unify people under a single vision, be true to that vision, and get HHS built is his legacy.” King recalled fierce debate among local officials and within the community over optional plans.

Options included to raze Stillwell and build a fully new HHS on a larger site or the longtime site. “He stood up for what he thought it (HHS) needs. Such as integrating (adjacent) Boyd property,” King said. He stuck to it. His consistency makes him and Hendersonville High great.”

Wilkins navigated HHS through various phases — of the pandemic and remote and hybrid learning, and campus renovation. The new main building was built and cordoned off from the rest of campus for safety’s sake, then opened in 2021-22 while Stillwell was sectioned off and vastly renovated. It has modern HVAC comfort.

“Everything’s new. We don’t have to keep fixing things,” Wilkins said.

Mentors Marvin

Coach Featherstone carries on the fast breaks of coaches Jim Pardue and Willkins to beat taller teams, and has taken the pressing defense to a new level. “My defensive philosophies come from when we played for him,” Featherstone said. “We’re still defense-first. We were prepared for anything they’d throw at us.” Rather than talk about how tactics to stop the other team, Wilkins reminded players of their basics. “His philosophy was ‘you gotta stop what we do, first.’ He’d say, ‘Go out, and do your job.’ I’d also tell my kids that and, ‘Don’t worry about your stats. Don’t try to do more than your role and be bigger than the team.”

Wilkins was Featherstone’s unofficial strategic advisor. “When teams first counter-acted my press, I’d grab him the next morning at school” for consultation. “He’d call me during games. I didn’t have my phone with me. He’d see adjustments to make. It’s been great to know your principal knows basketball. It’ll be hard not having him there.”

Strategic Sarcasm

Wilkins could sarcastically rattle a pupil or player back in line. He recalled an amusing time when everyone but point guard Featherstone was on the bus, about to head to a road contest. Wilkins shouted, “Where the heck is Marvin? We gotta leave. We looked around, and saw him behind the bus. He was kissing his girlfriend, Tina. I asked him, ‘Are you going to go with us, or stay with her?’”

Todd King recalls Wilkins’ “loving humor” as his encouraging golf coach. “He set an exceptionally high standard. If he saw you were not at full potential, he’d help you reach it. He instilled a competitive nature to out-play other teams. He’d ask us, ‘Do you have what it takes to win? Be a Bearcat!” We had a killer instinct. We beat everybody!”

New grad Noah Pavao, the star soccer goalie and baseball pitcher, said Principal Wilkins is a role model for full effort and success. “He says to always do your best.”

To the Rescue

Coach Wilkins’ boys teams were figurately “on fire” in the early Nineties. Back then, HHS basketball Lady Bearcats once nearly caught on actual fire. Their head coach, Mike Norman, drove them and cheerleaders back, after both Bearcat varsity squads won at Polk County. He slowed up an incline, then pulled onto the road’s shoulder.

Bearcat boys were in a 15-passenger van, which Wilkins drove right behind the bus. Wilkins pulled behind the bus, to help. Lady Bearcat players and coaches scrambled out of the bus.

Wilkins recalled that they said, “‘The bus is on fire! The bus is on fire!!’ So we loaded the van with the girls and cheerleaders. The boys enjoyed that!”