Richard Wilkins, emeritus professor of law at Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School and a well-known figure in Utah community theater, died on the evening of Nov. 26 at Provo's Utah Regional Medical Center. He was 59 years old.
He collapsed at his Provo home the morning after Thanksgiving and was rushed to the hospital, where he was kept on life support for three and a half days. The cause of death hasn't been determined.
Since 1985, Wilkins played the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in Hale Centre Theatre's stage production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. He had completed rehearsals to begin his 27th year of performances, with the production set to open Dec. 8 at the West Valley City-based theater.
"I think he lived 120 years in the 60 years of life he was given," said Sally Dietlein, vice president and executive producer of Hale Centre Theatre. "You never got a phoned-in performance from him."
Wilkins' affection for the role, which he first played at Hale Centre Theatre at the age of 32, was so steadfast that friends say it began to blend with his legal career as both law professor and legal activist for conservative causes. He became assistant to the solicitor general of the United States soon after graduating 1979 from BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School. He was one of the first graduates from the university's school of law to also teach at the school, specializing in constitutional law and civil procedure in civil courts.
He drafted legislation for the Utah Legislature during the early 1990s that would have limited abortions in the state. Wilkins found himself at the edge, or even center, of legal controversy for what he considered his principled legal and moral stands.
With the approach of the holiday season, though, acting and theater became the center of his life every holiday season as he prepared, yet again, for his favorite role. He saw Scrooge's transformation from uncaring old man to generous, jovial benefactor as a story rich in personal and cultural resonance.
"Every year it gives me a reality check. Which way am I going? Am I more like Scrooge after all these years, or less like him?" Wilkins told TheTribune in a December 2008 interview.
The Hale Centre Theatre production was often a Wilkins' family affair, with wife Melany either in the audience taking notes on ways her husband might improve his portrayal or performing as part of the cast. Son Rex, one of the couple's four children, sang bass in the production choir. He will continue to perform this year despite his father's absence, said director John Sweeney.
"His passing will certainly affect our performance, but not overwhelm it," said Sweeney, who will help fill in the lead role as Scrooge, along with David Weeks in the alternate cast. "We can share that moment with his friends and family off-stage. It's a role I feel unworthy of at this moment. Perhaps that will change. It's difficult right now to think of anyone else in the role."
Wilkins' legal career took him to several destinations in the Middle East. He served as managing director of the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development for the nation of Qatar. He traveled to Istanbul in 1996 to address a United Nations conference and family, going on to found the World Family Policy Center at BYU the following year. He was also chairman of the Defend Marriage Coalition, campaigning in 2005 for Amendment 3, banning all forms of legal gay partnerships in Utah.
"Richard was extremely devoted to family, both his own and the defense of family as an institution," said Lynn Wardle, a BYU professor of law who taught with Wilkins. "He was also one of the best [legal] writers this school ever produced."
Some in Utah's theater community bristled at Wilkins' stance on same-sex marriage, but Dietlein said Wilkins' personal beliefs never diminished the warmth he extended to those he met and worked with. His concern for the traditional family, she said, extended from his admiration for Dickens, England's most famous novelist, who was also an activist for children's causes. Wilkins interpreted Scrooge's disdain for "the surplus population" as akin to arguments in favor of abortion and euthanasia.
"Like Dickens, taking care of children was his theme song. It needs to be said, and he said it," Dietlein said. "Whatever other people perceive, he did so much good. He could have become extremely rich in the legal world, but he instead used his skills for philanthropic causes."
Wilkins decked his Provo home with Dickens and Scrooge artworks and paraphernalia. Among his collection was a rare 1843 first printing of A Christmas Carol.
"One of the key lines of the story for him was, 'I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, the present, and the future,'" Sweeney said. "In the 10 years I knew and worked with him, he lived very well to that sentiment."
In addition to wife Melany and four children, Wilkins leaves behind eight grandchildren. Family members have yet to announce a funeral date or details.