Dr. George Wilkerson may be best known in Austin as a comedy sketch writer and cast member for Esther's Follies, but as the founding dean of instruction at Austin Community College, creator of the first online Composition course in Texas, and an instructor for more than 40 years, he took adult learning seriously. Wilkerson died at his home in Nashville, Tenn., on May 12, 2020, after a three-year battle with cancer.
Described by his colleagues as unorthodox, creative, and pioneering, Wilkerson seemed to be exactly what was needed in the early days of creating a new kind of community college with an open door admissions policy and a diverse student body.
Wilkerson had just earned his doctoral degree in Community College Administration from the University of Texas when Dr. Thomas Hatfield, ACC's founding president, offered him the position of dean of academic instruction a few months before the college opened in September 1973. The two had previously worked together at John Tyler Community College in Virginia.
"He bought thoroughly into the philosophy that if the students haven't learned, the teacher has not taught it (well enough). He adopted this student-centered approach to teaching and inspired other faculty to want to adapt their teaching to make ACC meaningful to students who are often the first members of their family ever to go to college," says Hatfield. "It's fascinating to me that almost 50 years later that still is a philosophy at ACC. That's his contribution — the legacy of continuing to truly make a difference in the students' lives."
"The college was founded on a very innovative instructional delivery model. George was a pioneer in individual self-paced instruction," says Dr. Barbara Mink, ACC Board of Trustees past chair who worked at the college when it was founded and reported to Wilkerson. "But this was decades before computer learning, so faculty were making cassette tapes of lectures that they put in the library. Fast forward to ACC's ACCelerators where students can sit at computers to go at their own pace. George spearheaded all that."
Wilkerson was responsible for hiring the college's first instructors. It was this aspect of his job he was most excited about.
"It meant that he could put into practice some of his teaching theories and hire faculty for the academic side of the college who felt the same way about teaching that he did. He was able to mold the academic portion of the college, and he was just thrilled about the idea," remembers Barbara Zechner, Wilkerson's wife.
"Remember that Austin was — and still is — a highly educated community with several excellent institutions of higher learning. There were many award-winning faculty around town who would be judging ACC and its faculty, and they often judged us by conventional standards. George, however, understood that ACC did not require conventional teachers. ACC and its students needed faculty who were open minded and unconventional," says Dr. William Montgomery, ACC historian who was hired by Wilkerson. "He had a brilliantly insightful mind when it came to assessing the qualities of teachers and scholars who wanted to join the faculty of ACC. That was crucially important because Austin Community College was an innovative school. George knew that what ACC needed was a faculty who thought outside of comfortable, safe paradigms."
"George was both funny and creative — the kind of person who enjoyed laughter and making others laugh, and he was good at it," says Joe Lostracco, ACC instructional publications specialist. "In the early days of building a college from scratch, it was good to have someone in a leadership role who could not only keep us focused on the importance of what we were about but also keep us from taking ourselves and our task too seriously."
One of the ways Wilkerson kept up the camaraderie was through his annual Pecos Bill celebrations. Starting in 1974, Wilkerson invited all ACC faculty and staff to his home for a roast/self-deprecation party he named in reference to a fictional junior college he invented as a spoof.
"Unknown to everyone, he'd compiled a list of our mistakes, blunders, and foibles during that first year and had us read them to the group. Hilarious, irreverent, and sometimes bawdy, Pecos Bill was the college's only tradition other than graduation for over forty years," says Lostracco. "Pecos Bill, while it lasted, was a testament to George's inspiration and creativity."
Wilkerson walked the walk when it came to teaching, continuing to teach while he was dean. After stepping down as dean in 1977, he taught full time for the English department for a few more years before serving as an adjunct professor from 1982 to 1999, and again from 2006 to 2008, while he took on various technical writing and editing roles.
While teaching at ACC, Wilkerson created the first online English program in the state.
"He was so proud of that because his theory was that students learn at different paces and at different times and that you should not force a student to learn at the instructor's pace, but they should learn at their own. That's why he designed the (online English) program," says Zechner. "It was at the very beginning of online programs, and I remember in the middle of the night hearing the modem going off in his office and a student logging in to, you know, either ask a question or send in a paper or whatever."
Wilkerson also started ACC's testing center because he felt that students should be able to take their tests when they were ready rather than have it at an assigned time in the classroom, and it also freed up the faculty to do more creative teaching.
"He was very into staying at the forefront of whatever was going on in education. He was very opposed to just providing a classroom setting. He wanted multiple routes for the student to learn," says Zechner.
Wilkerson's family says he would be honored to be remembered for his innovative approach to education. The family plans to hold a celebration of his life in August 2020.
Below are memories from his colleagues and friends:
Dr. Thomas Hatfield: My earliest recollection of him is riding a motorcycle with a guitar slung over his back. And that really speaks about George — highly individualistic, unconventional, unorthodox, even in revolutionary times, back in 1968. He gave me a ride or two on his motorcycle when he lived in East Austin, and I borrowed his motorcycle and rode up and down Springdale Road.
Barbara Zelchner: I remember that when he did interviews, they very often ended up at our house for dinner, because that's the kind of person he was. We got to know not just the faculty but their family, their spouses, their kids. And in that way you have a much more collegial environment — the more you interact with your people, the better it is. So, yeah, he was a very extroverted person and it was important that he knew who he was working with.
Joe Lostracco: It's become a cliché among community college faculty, but George was truly student-focused — he enjoyed working with and guiding them to become better writers. One of my favorite memories of George, and revealing of his character, was the way he'd argue with the editor of our textbook every time we came out with a new edition. George insisted we do everything possible to keep the cost of the book low so that students wouldn't be burdened. This was at a time before ebooks and when textbook costs were soaring.
Dr. Maxine Montgomery: George's structure for teaching Composition II changed my life! When I took the equivalent course at UT as a freshman, I was thrown stories and novels and given no clue about how to approach analysis. George took the seven elements of fiction and had us teach them one at a time, with each paper building on the next, so they went from quite short to a full discussion of the work. By the time you were at the last paper, you really knew what you were doing and confident of your critique. Students loved this, and I have used this exact same structure myself for every book review I have done since. One of my colleagues praised a review I had just done for my book club, and I said, "Don't you recognize it? I just went through George's sequence."
Dr. William Montgomery: Personally, George lived on the edge. That's what I admired most about him. And what I remember most was his sense of humor. He could help found a new college during the day and then write hilarious skits for the downtown comedy venue "Esther's Follies." George was truly remarkable and memorable.