Many of us have been counting on Dick Wilkerson without even knowing it.
Do a Google search of Wilkerson, a military child who adopted Greenville as his “chosen hometown” in 1980, and the voluminous results you’ll find could be a crash course on the issues and opportunities facing the Upstate. Wilkerson is called on constantly for his expertise, serving on boards such as United Way of Greenville County, Greenville Health System, Clemson University President’s Advisory Board, the South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health, the Institute for Child Success, and the Community Foundation of Greenville. He has served all of these organizations and more, mostly since retiring from his position as chairman and president of Michelin North America in 2011.
Here’s what Google won’t tell you—Wilkerson never wanted to be chair at Michelin. Already in his sixties, he had happily achieved his goal of heading the manufacturing megacorp’s human resource department. But, by the time he’d finished advising his retiring predecessor about the ideal attributes the next chair should have, Wilkerson had unwittingly convinced everyone he was the very person for the job.
“He doesn’t have to obviously grab at the leadership role,” says Sue Priester, chair of the Community Foundation of Greenville. “I think the way he puts forth his analysis and his consideration of a situation . . . makes him a natural leader.”
“DICK’S LEADERSHIP HELPED US HONE IN ON ISSUES ADDRESSING ECONOMIC MOBILITY AND EDUCATION AT TAINMENT WHICH LED US TO BECOME AN EARLY SUPPORTER OF ONTRACK GREENVILLE. AS A RETIRED CEO, DICK BELIEVES IN INVESTING IN STUDENTS AND KNOWS IT WILL PAY DIVIDENDS AS THEY GRADUATE FROM HIGH SCHOOL BET TER PREPARED TO ENTER THE WORKFORCE OR CONTINUE ON TO HIGHER EDUCATION.”
—Bob Morris, president of the Community Foundation of Greenville
What likely keeps nudging Wilkerson into top positions is his enviable and powerful combination of intelligence and compassion. He holds an engineering degree from Duke University, and when his engineer’s mind sets to work understanding an issue, such as early childhood education, it sees an inexorable link to healthcare costs and transportation. Yet it’s Wilkerson’s heart driving the investigation, explains Monroe Free, president of Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County. Free says the core of Wilkerson’s quest to answer big questions is a deep desire to see every single person live in a community that allows them to reach their fullest potential. Free credits Wilkerson as the force behind Habitat’s annual CEO Build, an initiative in which executives work hands-on building homes alongside families on the road to financial security.
“Dick was instant credibility for the CEO Build,” says Free. “Some people said, ‘He wants this to happen, so let’s make it happen.’” Intriguingly, Wilkerson rallies to these serious issues with an ease that belies his earnestness. He has an intimate understanding of our community’s needs, an intelligence coming partly from study, partly from personal experience. Back at Duke, Wilkerson found himself bussing tables in the school cafeteria to make ends meet. He’d expected to study with a full-ride from an ROTC scholarship and also considered the Air Force Academy until the routine medical exam revealed a cancerous tumor in his throat. The cancer is long gone, but the lessons learned on his alternate past stuck firm. Even then, he was promoted from busboy to maître d’—somebody could tell he had something more to offer.
“The thing that helped me a bunch was having to work when I went to school, and seeing how differently people behave when you’re a busboy.” Wilkerson says. Years later as chair of Michelin, Wilkerson ate in the company cafeteria. He still valued the people and lessons to be found in overlooked places. Now he points to staff at Greenville’s non-profits, who, as he explains, “less visibly make a huge difference.” “Greenville is blessed with leaders of its philanthropic organizations who are really talented,” says Wilkerson, “yet they’re the ones giving out the awards.” And he is there to support them, stepping up or stepping back as needed.
THE RUTH NICHOLSON AWARD IS THE HIGHEST HONOR PRESENTED BY THE COMMUNITY FOUNDATION EACH YEAR AND HONORS THE VOLUNTEER WHO HAS MADE SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE GREENVILLE COMMUNITY THROUGH VOLUNTEER WORK FOR THE COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OR TO ONE OF ITS PROJECTS, PROGRAMS, OR AREAS OF EMPHASIS.