TERRY DULLUM: The Dullum File — Remembering Madame Wilkins

I just learned of the passing of Wynona Wilkins. She died a few days before Christmas and a couple of weeks after her 105th birthday, beating out Betty White by several years.

I knew her first as Madame Wilkins. For years, she taught French to many, many UND students. I was one of them.

Along with her historian husband, Dr. Robert Wilkins, she co-authored a lively little North Dakota history written for the Bicentennial that begins with a North Dakota joke. I don’t remember the joke, but I remember thinking how interesting it was that the Wilkins’ considered it important for readers to know that North Dakotans like to joke about themselves.

In class, Madame Wilkins had us read “The Little Prince,” in French, of course. One of the females in the class commented at some point about how charming the Saint-Exupery story is. Madame Wilkins said, “Of course! Would I have you read something that wasn’t?”

We learned a lot more in her class than another language. Our class discussions were wide-ranging. After all, an hour of French five days a week can be a little daunting for college kids if you don’t mix it up a little.

One day, she learned than none of us in the class had ever had sassafras tea. Madame Wilkins found this unacceptable. The next day, she brought in some for us to pass around and at least smell. It couldn’t have gotten more attention if it had been a Baggie of weed.

Another day she was appalled — appalled! — that none was us knew which of Beethoven’s symphonies was his “pastoral” symphony. She was especially put out with me because she knew I worked with her son at KFJM. She insisted we not come back to class the next day without the answer. Believe me, I’ve never forgotten it. (If you don’t know, Google it.)

Years later, she became “Toni” to me. A longtime organist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grand Forks, she and Robert also wrote a history of the Episcopal Church in North Dakota.

I was honored to be asked to read from Scripture at Dr. Wilkins’ funeral some years ago. The reception later was an atypical one for North Dakota. I still remember how impressed I was with the cucumber sandwiches and chocolate-covered strawberries served at the North Dakota Museum of Art along with the red and white wine. Not a hotdish in sight.

One of Toni’s many interests was quilting. Years after graduating, I did a television news feature story on her quilting club. During it, one of her “fellow” quilters teased her by saying, “Toni quilts all night sometimes.” With a bit of faux outrage, she said, “I don’t quilt all night!” But I’m not sure of that.

The last time I saw her was a few years ago in line to vote in a North Dakota primary election. She never talked politics in her class, but I knew she leaned in the progressive direction. We chatted a little about that and a lot else, and as we were leaving I said, “Au revoir, Madame.” Without missing a beat and without a hint of irony, she said, “Au revoir.”

One thought on “TERRY DULLUM: The Dullum File — Remembering Madame Wilkins”

  • Sunny Wells January 25, 2022 at 10:33 am

    Thank you for this story about Mme Wilkins. I was a student of hers in the 70s, and she influenced me greatly in my 35 year French teaching career. I kept in touch with her through the years and was concerned that I didn’t receive a Christmas card from her this year. What a beautiful lady.


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