Willard C. Wiggins, one of four African Americans who advanced integration at the Gilman School in the 1960s and later went on to a more than four-decade career with the Social Security Administration, died Friday of cancer at Sinai Hospital. The Pikesville resident was 68.
Willard Cornelius Wiggins, the son of Winston Wiggins, a truck driver, and his wife, Theresa Finney Wiggins, was born in Baltimore and raised on Edmondson Avenue.
“As a young man, Willard displayed an intellect and cunning that garnered the attention of Gilman School recruiters at a time when Baltimore City schools were still deeply segregated,” wrote a daughter, Josette Markline, of Glen Burnie.
Black students first entered Gilman in 1961.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun last year, Mr. Wiggins recalled his arrival at Gilman’s Roland Avenue campus in 1964 as “somewhat overwhelming.”
“I was used to seeing not mostly but entirely black faces at my old school, and I got here and it was all white faces,” he said. “Understanding the tone of race relations in Baltimore at the time, my parents went to great lengths to explain to me what I was about to do — the fact that it would not be easy, and that I would have to prove myself when I got here. So that was weighing heavily on my mind.”
At Gilman, Mr. Wiggins proved to be a stellar student and a varsity football player. He was active in the theater and sang with the Traveling Men, an a cappella choral group.
“He arrived at Gilman before me and that was fortunate because he paved the way and became an inspirational guide and tackling all of the pressures that were there in that challenging environment," said Stuart O. Simms, a Baltimore lawyer and former secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who entered Gilman in 1965.
“Willard was extremely engaging and had a curious mind about all things. He was a tinkerer and wanted to know how things worked and how to motivate people,” he said. “He had great skills in identifying factors that made things operate.”
Travers C. Nelson was a longtime friend and also a Gilman and Cornell University classmate.
“You could not ask for a more courageous person,” Mr. Nelson said. "He handled everything at Gilman with grace, aplomb and courage."
Bill Riley was another classmate.
“He was a guy of high integrity and he represented what headmaster Reddy Finney used to say, ‘It’s what you do when no one is looking.’ Willard exemplified that,” Mr. Riley said. “he had a marvelous smile and would do anything for you.”
Wrote his daughter: “He graduated in 1968 as one of the ‘Fantastic Four,’ a term coined for the first four African American students to integrate the prestigious private school."
Said Mr. Riley: “Willard had a marvelous voice and at our 50th reunion got up and sang a few soul songs, which was, of course, the music of our generation.”
Mr. Wiggins and Mr. Simms, along with two of their classmates, Greg Emery and David Robinson, became the first black alumni of the school, which was founded in 1897.
After graduating from Gilman, Mr. Wiggins studied engineering at Cornell and later earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Johns Hopkins University.
Mr. Wiggins began his career at the Social Security Administration in 1971.
“He started on the loading dock,” said his wife of 35 years, the former Leslie J. Yelton, an administrative assistant to the dean of the Johns Hopkins Library.
Mr. Wiggins rose through the ranks to become director of the Division of Architectural and Engineering Services at the SSA’s Woodlawn headquarters. He retired in 2015.
The former Windsor Hills resident lived in Pikesville for the past 13 years. He was an inveterate Orioles and Ravens fan, and often traveled throughout the country and even overseas to attend games, family members said.
“For the last three years, he had health challenges and was a profile in courage,” Mr. Simms said. "He handled these challenges very calmly. He appreciated life and his family as he moved forward."
It was Mr. Wiggins’ wish that donations be made to the William A. Greene Jr. Endowed Scholarship Fund that provides financial assistance to students from Baltimore public schools who attend Gilman, "which will add to the rich diversity of the school’s community,” his daughter wrote.
A celebration of life gathering will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Matthews 1600 at 1600 Frederick Road, Catonsville.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Wiggins is survived by three other daughters, Wendolyn Wiggins of Pikesville, Wynona Wiggins-China of Columbia and Waquel Crowder of Havelock, North Carolina; four brothers, Warren Wiggins of Baltimore, Wayne Wiggins of Laurel, Winston Wiggins of Los Angeles and Wallas Wiggins of Bettendorf, Iowa; a sister, Wanda Allen of Woodlawn; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. An earlier marriage to Deborah Cornish ended in divorce.