CEDAR RAPIDS — Ask those who knew Harold Wilkinson best, and a common theme emerges quickly.
Wilkinson loved coaching. But not as much as he loved those he coached.
“He was the epitome of what a coach should be,” said Aaron Stecker, athletics director at Cedar Rapids Kennedy. “I watched the way he interacted with the girls the past couple years. You could tell they loved him.”
Wilkinson, who helped build girls’ track programs at Belle Plaine, Kennedy and Solon into state powers, died Thursday after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He was 74.
“I’m trying to absorb the loss,” said Cedar Rapids Jefferson girls’ track coach Bill Calloway. “He was a prince of a fellow. He was one of the great people in coaching, and it went far beyond his record.”
“I don’t think you could find a better person than Wilk,” said longtime Kennedy baseball coach and teacher Bill Herkelman. “Always upbeat. Just someone that was special.”
Memorial services will be at 10:30 a.m. on Monday at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Memorial visitation will be 3-7 p.m. Sunday at the Cedar Memorial Park Funeral Home.
Wilkinson coached the Belle Plaine girls to three consecutive state titles from 1964 through 1966, then coached 24 seasons at Kennedy (1971-94).
Kennedy’s home meet was renamed the Wilkinson Relays upon his retirement.
The glory days at Kennedy hit from 1977 through 1982, a six-year span in which the Cougars were state runners-up twice and placed third three times.
Wilkinson coached girls’ basketball at Kennedy from 1972 through ’82, compiling a 181-74 record. The 1976-77 team finished 29-2 and reached the state final before losing 51-48 to Southeast Polk.
The Cougars returned to state in 1978.
He also was Kennedy’s coach in girls’ cross country (1981-82, 1986-95) and boys’ cross country (1971-72, 1986-95).
Wilkinson’s legacy went far beyond the years and the win-loss records. Herkelman said Wilkinson would send Kennedy athletes little notes after their seasons to congratulate them on what they had accomplished.
“He was just the best guy, a tremendous person,” said an emotional Michelle Goodall, a 1985 Kennedy graduate and now the school’s varsity volleyball coach. “He’s one of my coaching models. Everybody held him in such high esteem.”
After retiring at Kennedy, Wilkinson spent the 2000 and 2001 seasons as the head track coach at Solon, then continued on as an assistant.
“I just feel privileged to get to work with these kids,” Wilkinson said in 2006. “I don’t know how much help I am any more, but I enjoy going to practice every day.”
The Lady Spartans were 2A state co-champions in 2010, then took third in 3A last spring.
“He’s a person that definitely had a passion for girls’ athletics,” said Solon head girls’ track coach Brent Sands. “You could really tell how much he cared about kids.”
Wilkinson is survived by his wife Peg, two sons Mike and Blake, a daughter Codi, his mother Alois, sister Jan and bother Dean, as well as four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He graduated from Mound City (Mo.) High School and Northwest Missouri State University.