Former Dickinson Dean Wilks dies at 83

April 08, 2015

William Lee Wilks, 83, who served The Dickinson School of Law as dean for 10 years, died Tuesday, Feb. 24.

Wilks joined The Dickinson School of Law community as a professor of law in 1970, later serving as dean from 1977 to 1987. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Law School in 1987. Under his leadership, he championed the hiring of women, the institutionalization and expansion of clinical programs, and the faculty as a whole, according to former colleague and Professor Emeritus Harvey Feldman, Class of 1969, who served as Wilks’ assistant dean.

“It was his self-effacing and reinforcing leadership style that encouraged each of us (on the faculty and in the administration) to give voice to the reasons for our position on any issue that substantially affected the law school community,” said Feldman. “Through our discussions, we gained confidence in the professionalism of one another and in the commitment each of us had made to elevate the stature of the law school.”

Wilks was a leader of numerous professional organizations: he served as chair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Special Task Force to Study the Tort System, helping to draft Pennsylvania's revised Motor Vehicle Code; he was a consultant to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges' Commission; served as past chair of the Independent Law School Committee of the American Bar Association; and was a law school inspector for the American Bar Association. Wilks was also a Life Fellow of the American Bar Foundation and a member of the Garland R. Walker American Inn of Court.

Former student and Class of 1976 alumnus Neil E. Hendershot remembered Dean Wilks for his energy and enthusiasm. “Dean Wilks taught the class in Evidence to me and my classmates at The Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle,” recalled Hendershot. “But, by his personal examples of clear thought, personal engagement, active listening, spontaneous humor, continuous humility and demonstrable respect, he taught me much more. I suspect that I am not alone in recognizing his profound influence upon law students such as me.”

Wilks was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Nov. 12, 1931. He earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University in 1952, later earning his juris doctor from the University of Michigan School of Law in 1955. His lifelong love of the law led him to earn a master’s in law degree from the George Washington University National Law Center in 1973. Feldman commuted with him for two years from Carlisle to Washington, D.C., as they earned the degree. He recalled their commutes fondly.

“On the ride home late at night, we would listen to the Fort Wayne Comets games on the radio. The Comets are a minor league hockey team, and Bill was from Fort Wayne. When the radio faded, we talked baseball,” said Feldman. “The highest compliment that players and sportscasters can give to a manager is to say 'He's a players' manager. If you can't play for him, you can't play for anyone.' In the world of legal education, if you couldn't play for Bill Wilks, you couldn't play for anyone.”

Wilks touched many lives during his tenure at The Dickinson School of Law; if you would like to share a memory of Wilks, send an email to dickinsonlawalum@psu.edu. The Law School will compile responses to share with the family and with the Law School community.

View Wilks' obituary

Last Updated July 22, 2015