In Loving Memory of
Oscar Lawton Wilkerson, Jr.
February 9, 1926 – February 8, 2023
Oscar Lawton (Wilk) Wilkerson, Jr. was born on February 9, 1926, in Chicago Heights, Illinois, to Oscar Lawton Wilkerson, Sr., and Elizabeth James Wilkerson. He was preceded in death by his mother and father and older brother Rufus Willard Wilkerson. Lawton attended both grade and Bloom High School in Chicago Heights, IL. He was baptized at the age of 12 and became a member of Union Evangelistic Baptist Church in Chicago Heights where his family were also members.
From Model Airplanes to Pilot
Lawton knew as a youngster, playing with his friend, Lewis Irons, that someday he would become a pilot. They built model airplanes from wood with rice paper coverings, powered by rubber bands expertly crafted by adolescent engineers. Even at such a young age, he aspired to be more than what most thought a young Black man could be at that time. Motivated by his desire to become a pilot, Lawton ignored the limitations society put on people who looked like him, accepted the challenges that came with his plans and became a student cadet in the Civil Air Patrol at Chicago Heights Airport.
After graduating from Bloom High School he signed up for and passed the pilot training exam for the Army Air force. He entered the U.S. Army Air Force’s Aviation Cadet training program in Tuskegee, Alabama. He was assigned to the 617th bombardment squadron where he was trained to fly the B-25 “Billy Mitchell” Bomber. He received his Commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and his wings as a B-25 pilot in 1946. In this capacity, he served in various positions at the U.S. Airbases until his Honorable Discharge.
Because there were no opportunities for Blacks in aviation after the war, Lawton pursued other interests. For a short time, he attended Roosevelt College in Chicago, Illinois, and went on to attend The New York Institute of Photography in NYC. Upon completion of his studies, he worked in the camera department of Polk Brother’s Chicago department store and also began a career as a freelance photographer, an occupation that he continued for most of his life.
Lawton married the “love of his life,” Katherine Gavin. While they did not remain married, they were always close, life-long friends.
During his long and distinguished lifetime, Lawton’s many talents enabled him to pursue numerous careers. He was the first Black driver for South Suburban Safeway lines and also an insurance agent for Golden State Mutual.
Everyone who knew Lawton knows that he loved music, especially jazz, and he was a professional in the industry. After completing training at the Midwest Broadcasting School, Lawton covered the broadcast schedule all day on Saturday and Sunday at WBEE in Harvey, Illinois, and acquired his nickname, “Weekend Wilkie.”
After a seven and a half year stint there, he was promoted to Program Director. This position encompassed all phases of the operation of the station, including programming, talent, news, public service, promotion and public relations. In 1965, just one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this was an amazing accomplishment.
He next accepted the position of manager of community affairs at WMAQ, NBC Radio in Chicago, Illinois. After 18 1/2 years of assignments, on and off the air, he retired as Program Manager. During Wilk’s career at WMAQ, the station format went from “Pop Music” to “Country” and finally to “Talk Radio.” When the station was sold to a “News Radio” syndicate, he retired.
Always pursuing knowledge during this time, he studied television production at South Suburban College. There he worked on special production projects including editing, voiceovers and, on occasion, as on-camera talent.
An Enduring Love of Aviation
While he pursued and was successful in a variety of careers, his love for flying never went away. Somewhere along the way, Lawton returned to aviation, joining with partner Dr. Maceo Ellison, in the ownership of a Cessna 172 in which they enjoyed many pleasant flying experiences (and a few not-so-pleasant). Through diligent study, they received their certification for both private pilot and instrument rating. The hours spent together at the airport and elsewhere forged an unbreakable bond of friendship that lasted throughout Lawton’s life.
Lawton was an active and devoted member of the Chicago “DODO” chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. He was also a member of the diminishing number of “Documented Tuskegee Airmen.” After a series of movies and documentaries generated a renewed focus on the lives, struggles and accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen, Wilk was a sought-after commodity. He was requested by countless numbers of organizations, groups and young people to share his experiences and those of other Tuskegee Airmen. He, along with the remaining members of the “Original Tuskegee Airmen” and the “DODO” members, traveled together throughout the country detailing this history. Lawton’s video oral history was captured and will be preserved by the History Makers, an organization that preserves the histories of our African American history makers.
He was a member and leader of many professional and community organizations. He was a Charter Member and National Treasurer of the National Broadcast Association for Community Affairs, Charter Member and Treasurer of the Chicago Area Broadcast Public Affairs Association, Charter Member and
Chairman of the Board of the Dr. Charles E Gavin Foundation, President of the Rotary Club of Harvey Allocations Committee, Member of the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, Member of the Public Relations Committee of the American Red Cross and Member of the Public Relations Committee of the Veterans Bedside Network.
Lawton was also the oldest and longest-surviving volunteer of the 21st Century Dads Foundation beginning in 2015. He was a crew member of three consecutive bike rides covering many miles across the country. He attended most of the events held. which he thoroughly enjoyed and spoke of fondly.
A Man of Faith
Wilk was serious about his Christianity, not only in his church membership but in his daily life. He was baptized at the age of 12 and became a member of Union Evangelistic Baptist Church in Chicago Heights, Illinois with his family members. Wilk joined New Faith Baptist Church of Matteson, Illinois and served as Director of the Sound and Tape Ministry from 1989 to 1999.
Lawton was a faithful member of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills, Illinois, and spoke often of his commitment to his church, his devotion to his church family and his love of his pastor. He was very active and involved in church affairs and never a “bench warmer.” He faithfully attended worship and supported the church throughout his membership. He was a mentor and encourager to many.
Lawton lived a life that exemplified Christian principles. He was generous, caring and could be counted on to help anybody that he knew needed help. He was a devoted brother and son and always said he was a “mama’s boy.” He was never afraid of showing his feelings and was not ashamed of shedding a tear when moved. Lawton’s willingness to help friends, family and strangers was a noteworthy aspect of his personality and he embodied the faith he practiced. No matter the type of need, he was there; No one felt alone during their challenges with Lawton in their life. In essence, he exemplified all of the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
His Love of Travel
Lawton had a passion for life which he demonstrated in many ways. Travel was a favorite activity, especially taking cruises. His eagerness to learn about and explore new places was a character trait that never waned. He took many pictures to document the various places around the world that he visited and the people he met.
You could always tell when Wilk entered a room. The distinctive voice that made him such a wonderful radio personality was a welcome sound at any gathering. He had an unrivaled sense of humor; his laugh was infectious and so was his smile! He loved to tell jokes and his one-liners were legendary.
Awards and Accolades
Lawton was the recipient of many awards and honors, including an Award of Honor from the University of Illinois in 2007, as well as being inducted into the Bloom High School Hall of Fame in 2021. Most notably, in 2006 Lawton received the Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Award of Honor for “Outstanding Combat Record and Inspired Revolutionary Reform in the Armed Forces.
He leaves to mourn him his grandniece and nephew, Lauren Clark Wilkerson and Jim Wilkerson, many cousins, best friend for over 50 years Dr. Maceo Ellison, bonus Ellison family and a host of friends and acquaintances.
To know Oscar Lawton “Wilk” Wilkerson, Jr. was to love him. He will be remembered by all who knew him.