David Wilkins calls himself a perfect example of not knowing where life’s road will lead.
Just eight years out of the Army and practicing law in the firm founded by his father, William Walter Wilkins, he read a newspaper headline saying that Rex Carter would not seek re-election to the South Carolina House of Representatives. Wilkins, who had never even worked on a political campaign before, decided he would run.
His wife, Susan, thought he was joking. His brother – former chief justice of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Billy Wilkins – thought he was crazy.
“Running for the House opened up a whole new world for me,” Wilkins says. “I had no idea where it would take me. I took one day, one step, one job at a time.”
That’s because nobody could have predicted his meteoric – and unlikely – rise to power.
When he won the seat in 1980, he was only one of 18 Republicans in the 124-seat House of Representatives. Less than a decade and a half later, he was one of the most powerful politicians in South Carolina.
Wilkins rose through the ranks of the House, serving six years as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and two years as speaker pro tem. In 1994, he decided to challenge the incumbent Democratic speaker of the house even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans 64 to 60.
“By my math, 64 always beats 60,” he says. But relationships he had built over the years helped him win a vote even he doubted he could accomplish.
“I made the decision on a Wednesday morning to run. On Thursday, I remember thinking, ‘You’re going to get kicked so bad.’ By Friday afternoon, I began to see positive signs and by Monday, I knew I’d win,” says Wilkins. “It really came down to the relationships I had built over the years in the House, and Republicans had the momentum. South Carolina was becoming a Republican state.”
And Wilkins led the House during a time when there were some real powder-keg issues – video poker and the removal of the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse. Wilkins started by asking himself what was best for the state and finished by trying to convince his colleagues to go along and to build a consensus.
“I had no desire to just be a player,” Wilkins says. “I wanted to have an impact.”
Wilkins has had an impact on the international level as well. When he became U.S. Ambassador to Canada in 2005, relations between the two countries were strained. Wilkins helped resolve some of the most high-profile issues between the United States and Canada, including a decades-old softwood lumber trade dispute.
“That was the greatest position I’ve ever had,” Wilkins says. “It was such an honor to represent my country. I woke up every morning thinking, ‘O.K., big boy, you’re representing the United States. Don’t screw it up.”
Now, Wilkins’ need for public service is fulfilled by his position as chairman of Clemson University’s board of trustees.
“I look at myself as a very ordinary person who has been blessed with the extraordinary opportunities presented to me,” Wilkins says.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
An attorney. I grew up in a house of attorneys. My father was an attorney. My brother is an attorney. When I was growing up, I’d go to the office with my father. I’d run errands for him. I always knew I’d be an attorney.
If you weren’t an attorney, what would have been your career choice?
Probably a teacher or a coach. I taught at Greenville Tech in the paralegal department teaching classes on Mondays and Fridays. I started out as a young lawyer just trying to get my name out. I did it for more than 20 years. That’s a lot of Mondays and Fridays at 7:30 a.m. But I kept doing it because I liked it, even after I was elected to the House. I liked the interaction with students, seeing their eyes light up. I attended Clemson on a tennis scholarship, so I know a little bit about tennis.
What gets you up in the morning?
I like waking up in the morning with a task and getting it done. I make lists. On Monday, I’ve got to get these eight things done. I’m goal-oriented.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
My wonderful family. I told my wife, Susan, that if she ever left me, I was going with her. We’ve been married since 1971. She’s the most influential person in my life. She’s my moral compass. She keeps me grounded. The first week we were back from Canada, she told me to take out the trash. I hadn’t taken the trash out in four years. She said, “Surely, you haven’t forgotten how?” I took out the trash. I am very proud of my family.
What is your idea of work-life balance?
I think about that more now. Weekends are totally devoted to family. I try not to be gone on business more than one or two nights a week. You’ll find me playing with my grandchildren out in the backyard. We’ll play dodge ball, soccer, baseball or hike in the woods. If the weather’s bad, we’ll be reading books or playing games.
What is your biggest regret?
I don’t have any regrets. I acknowledge that I’ve been clearly blessed in my life. There are always little things I could do better. My parents always said “do the very best you possibly can in whatever you’re doing.” I do the best I can and then don’t worry about it.
What advice do you find yourself giving most often?
Show up and get involved. Showing up matters, and what that means is be involved in your community. Get out in the community. You can’t get new business by sitting behind your desk. Personal relationships are so important. They really make the difference in your personal life, in your church life and in your personal life. Personal relationships affect your business relationships. You treat people like you want to be treated and it goes a long way.
What is Greenville’s most under-utilized asset?
I’ve tried to come up with one and can’t. There are always things you can do better, but there’s not one glaring thing. I think we’re always worried about transportation and about infrastructure, but those are also state problems. I think the sky’s the limit for Greenville. I think Greenville stands out in downtown development. Greenville has the best downtown of any city I’ve been to. I think Greenville is a shining star in how to develop downtown. We’ve got a lot to be proud of, but we can’t get complacent. We’ve got to keep moving forward.
There are a lot of people I looked up to. Carroll Campbell was a good advisor. Buck Mickel was a mentor. I’ve been with President George Bush, No. 41, a number of times and I saw how he treated people. He’d treat people with dignity and grace. He always had the time. When he was leaving a home, he’d go into the kitchen to thank those who prepared the meal and served the meal. He was never too busy to be nice to people. I’ve been exposed to a lot of good folks. My father was a good man. He was a man of character who worked hard. He’s probably why I’m a classic overachiever today. My mother was a great encourager. She had great common sense.
What are your strengths?
I’m reliable. I’m faithful. I’m a hard worker. I do what I say I will do.
What is your worst trait?
I tend to be impatient. I want to get things done and move, move, move.
What did you miss most about Greenville while you were in Canada?
Susan and I missed our friends the most. A whole bunch of them visited us up there. Our house overlooked the Ottawa River and it had a lot of bedrooms.
What did you learn in Canada that could help Greenville?
It reinforced to me that Canada is South Carolina’s largest trading partner and the largest trading partner of 37 other states. There’s a Canadian engineering firm operating here in Greenville. I learned that the United States and Canada are more like each other than any two countries in the world, and that Canada is a wonderful partner to the United States and to South Carolina.
What do you see yourself doing in five years?
I see myself right here doing what I’m doing now. I think I’d fail at retirement.