Calvin Howard Wilkins Jr. was an accomplished Wichita businessman who savored his time as a U.S. envoy in Europe.
“He loved every minute of that ambassadorship,” said longtime friend Nestor Weigand Jr. “He loved every minute of that experience.”
Mr. Wilkins died Dec. 24 at his Palm Beach, Fla., home. He was 78.
A 1960 graduate of Yale University with a degree in history, Mr. Wilkins was an early franchisee of Pizza Hut and served as vice chairman of the Wichita-based company as well as the first president of the International Pizza Hut Franchisee Holders Association.
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“He was a very smart guy. Even in school he was always at the top of the class,” said Weigand, chairman and CEO of J.P. Weigand & Sons, who said he was friends with Mr. Wilkins since they attended grade school together at Blessed Sacrament.
Weigand said the first Pizza Hut franchise Mr. Wilkins purchased with a group of partners was in Louisville, Ky.
“I think it was 1968 or ’67 he got into the Pizza Hut business in Louisville … and it was a very, very successful operation,” Weigand said.
From there the group of partners, with Mr. Wilkins as operating partner, went on to acquire other Pizza Hut franchises.
“He was very entrepreneurial,” Weigand said.
In addition to Pizza Hut, Mr. Wilkins became a franchisee of several other restaurant and non-restaurant chains including Amarillo Grill, Grandy’s, Long John Silvers and Rent-A-Center.
More recently he was partners with Randy Simon in 34 Panera Bread stores. Simon started with Mr. Wilkins in 1975 as his “accounting and financial guy” and from there learned how to run restaurants and other franchises.
Most of all, Simon said, he learned from Mr. Wilkins the practice of business ethics and ensuring that “we were doing the right thing when we were running our businesses.”
An active GOP member, Mr. Wilkins served as Kansas finance chairman for former President Gerald Ford in 1975 and in a similar post for former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole in his 1988 presidential bid.
President George H.W. Bush appointed him to serve as ambassador to the Netherlands, a post Mr. Wilkins held for three years beginning in June 1989.
“It’s just a gigantic adventure,” Mr. Wilkins said of his service as ambassador in an interview with The Eagle in July 1989. “I’ve never worked harder and loved it more. Intellectually, politically, culturally, it’s got all the spice of historical drama.”
Mr. Wilkins was one of three children of the late C. Howard Wilkins Sr., a longtime Wichita stockbroker and namesake of the women’s softball stadium at Wichita State University.
Mr. Wilkins and his brother Robert of Wichita were part of a group that included their father in establishing Shocker Rowing at WSU in 1975.
And in 1994, Mr. Wilkins, Robert and their late sister, Jane Gifford, created the C. Howard Wilkins Sr. Women’s Basketball Scholarship and C. Howard Wilkins Sr. Women’s Softball Scholarship.
Robert Wilkins said Friday that his older brother’s trademark was wearing tennis shoes and blue jeans with a red bandana.
And “he was very proud of his Wichita upbringing,” Robert Wilkins said.
A celebration of life service for Mr. Wilkins is planned for Feb. 4 in Wichita.