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Rock Hill’s James Wilkerson was stellar union negotiator for Bowater

Those who had even the briefest of encounters with James A. “Jim” Wilkerson, were left with two impressions: He had the warmest of smiles and an East Tennessee drawl so thick that he could take the simplest word and turn it into a 12-syllable – or more – tongue-twister.

Those who sat and talked with him longer found – as friend Barry Mitchell observed – “a master of the straight talk.

“He told you what he thought. It could hurt you, or put you on cloud nine.”

And those who stayed longer – perhaps to share a meal, a meeting or a meandering round of golf – found a good listener, a counselor, a mentor, a friend.

“His strongest attributes were his respect and integrity,” said his son, Rusty Wilkerson, the oldest of three children. That’s what he gave to people and that’s what he expected in return. When that happened, “he would give you the shirt off his back,” Wilkerson said.

Jim Wilkerson died Monday at 81. He leaves a family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as an extended family of friends from his career and his civic and church activities.

He worked for Bowater for 42 years, most of it at the Catawba Mill.

His results, said former mill manager Mike Forrest, “put him on the short list of icons at Bowater.”

The list is former plant managers Bob Herdman, Clarence Hornsby and D.A. Humphrey and Wilkerson, who served for many years as the mill’s industrial relations manager, Forrest said.

Wilkerson was among the temporary management team that came to the Catawba Mill in 1959, the year it opened. As the assistant industrial superintendent, he hired the mill’s first employees.

Later that year, he negotiated the first union contract. The workers had a dispute over how they were classified and went out on strike.

“The strike, he didn’t talk about it much,” said Rusty Wilkerson. “But it was clear it was the one thing he wished he could have avoided.”

In the following years Wilkerson, demonstrated a skill for labor relations.

“He represented the management and the people who worked at the Catawba Mill,” said Hornsby, the manager at the time of the strike. “He contributed in so many ways to all aspects of their lives.”

“As a labor relations man he was the best I worked with,” said former mill manager Elwin Walker, who followed Hornsby. “He had a real heart for people and a passion for doing things right. What he did, was right for the employees.”

Wilkerson did so with his straight-forward style, Walker said.

“He was very opinionated, strong willed and a delight,” he said. “He was not a ‘yes man.’”

He was the same man at home and at play, said family and friends.

Life in the Wilkerson home was an “adventure,” Rusty Wilkerson said. “It was understood what was expected. If we didn’t live up to that, we’d hear about it. But, we were loved anyway.”

Golfing with Wilkerson was an adventure where friendship was more important the final score.

Lewis Murray was Wilkerson’s golf partner for 35 years. Murray, then a photographer for The Herald, met Wilkerson through his wife, Ann, who also worked at The Herald. Ann suggested the two partner for a golf junket in Myrtle Beach.

They immediately hit it off, Murray said, because the junket was two people from Rock Hill and 50 from Winston-Salem, N.C.

They also got along well because Wilkerson at times could get “lippy” on the course. Murray responded in kind.

Wilkerson’s other passions included the Winthrop Eagles basketball team. He and Ann seldom missed a game. He also loved surf fishing and gardening.

When the Wilkersons moved to their home off India Hook Road in 1964, it was like most of suburbia – a large expansive back yard of barely green grass.

Today, most of the grass has been replaced by flowers and shrubs, benches and a gazebo he built from a kit, statues and brick paths.

The results rival Glencairn Garden, his son said.

“It was his release. He was totally in charge. It was his vision,” Rusty Wilkerson said. “He wanted to be a landscape architect.”

The Saturday before he died, the family held a meeting.

“He wasn’t happy because he couldn’t smoke, but it was a family meeting and he was clearly running it,” Rusty said. “That was the kind of guy he was – everywhere – always to the end.”

Jim Wilkerson wrote his own obituary. It was in bullet style, like a business letter, but laced with his own humorous touches, such as his initial lack of academic success in college and his flat feet in the military. The family added some transitions to make it flow.

The only information Jim Wilkerson didn’t include were the details of his own funeral. At 2 p.m. Saturday, family and friends will gather at Oakland Presbyterian Church to celebrate his life.