, Newburyport, MA

April 13, 2007

Famed doctor helped save Port a building at a time

Angeljean Chiaramida

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NEWBURYPORT -- Even though she was in high school at the time, Mary Wilkins Haslinger remembers well the fateful night in 1965 when Mayor George Lawler made a trip to her home at 299 High Street to see her father, Dr. Robert Wilkins.

"I noticed a strange car parked in our driveway," Haslinger said in a recent interview. "I went to my mother and said, 'Mama, there's someone parked in the driveway.' She said, 'Yes dear, I know. It's the mayor.' I asked her if we should invite him in, and she said. 'No. We'll wait till your father gets home."

The night Haslinger -- and Lawler -- remember so well changed forever Newburyport's urban renewal experience, and possibly that of many other cities as well.

It was the night Lawler persuaded Wilkins to join the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, the agency charged with redeveloping the tattered downtown.

It was the night that changed Newburyport's future by recognizing the value of its past.

"I've always thought that George Lawler is the unsung hero of Newburyport's urban renewal story," Haslinger said, sitting in the den of the house she now calls her home at 299 High St. "If George hadn't written that resolution that asked the NRA to consider preserving the old buildings instead of tearing them all down, everything could be gone now."

But Lawler, 38 years old at the time, needed someone to make sure his suggestion held firm, and so he placed his trust in Dr. Wilkins.

That night in 1965 was the result of about two years of unrelenting work by Wilkins and others in Newburyport who believed Newburyport's economic revival did not depend upon nearly everything in the once prosperous city center being torn down. Today, some may wonder how a busy doctor could spare the time to organize, strategize and implement the grassroots effort that eventually preserved most of Newburyport's historic downtown.

"My father was a man of extraordinary principle and extraordinary energy," Wilkins said. "He told me once when his father bought the family's first car, he couldn't stand just sitting and riding in it. So he'd run alongside of it."

At the time he took on Newburyport urban renewal issues, Wilkins was in his late 50s and held three positions at Boston Uuniversity Medical School. He was the chairman of the Department of Medical Teaching, the chairman of the Department of Clinical Research and the Physician in Chief at BU Medical Center.

To Haslinger, her father actions during the urban renewal era exemplified his principles, beliefs and his nature as a scientist.

'Time and patience'

Born in Tennessee and raised in North Carolina, her father's family roots can be traced back to the earliest settlements in Virginia, Haslinger said. Because most of the South's historic buildings didn't survived the Civil War, she believes he came to treasure the architecture of the past. In addition, she said, her father had a mentor in his father-in-law, Gayden Morrill. Morrill had been mayor in Newburyport for four years during the Depression.

"My grandfather used to take my father on long walks around Newburyport," Haslinger said. "While on those walks, my grandfather would point out all the historic buildings. He impressed upon my father how important they were to this community."

In addition, she said, taking on the daunting task of turning around Newburyport's already speeding bulldozer of urban renewal never intimidated her father. Wilkins had already done landmark research on high blood pressure that refuted former medical theory that high blood pressure was actually needed to drive blood through narrowed arteries. His research showed the dangers of high blood pressure, and was responsible for developing the first effective medical treatment to lower blood pressure, including the development of two new drugs, according to articles in medical publications. Simply put, Wilkins' tenacity was legendary.

"My father was a researcher, and research takes time and patience," Haslinger said. "With research, if you don't get the right result, you stop and start again. Part of my father's life experience as a researcher was never to give up. He used to tell my son, 'with research you go up a lot of blind alleys, but you have to be tenacious. You never give up.'"

The job Wilkins took on in Newburyport was considerable. He had to persuade local, state and federal officials at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that it was possible to revitalize a city's economy by restoring, not destroying its buildings.

Wilkins wrote to everyone, and Haslinger believes her father's fame as a doctor and researcher came to the aid of the project. Due to his reputation as a scientist, when Wilkins' spoke, people listened.

"When the urban renewal crisis erupted here, my father was so famous HUD couldn't ignore him," Haslinger said.

Neither could others when Wilkins quietly and earnestly sought their help. William Perry, the masterful architect responsible for Colonial Williamsburg's restoration, answered when Wilkins' called. Perry was raised in Newburyport and even spent his summers here, Haslinger said. Although he didn't know her father personally before Wilkins called him, he knew of his reputation.

It would be Perry's engineers and his Boston firm's technical skill in fashioning the restoration-based urban renewal three-dimensional model that turned the tide of popular opinion toward the vision Wilkins shared with his friends Ruth and Edmond Burke, Hack Pramberg and many others from the city's historical society.

Taking on the job at the NRA, Wilkins knew he wouldn't win every battle, but he knew he wouldn't win any if he didn't take on the responsibility. Haslinger remembers nights when he came home after meetings with the news another building would unfortunately be lost. He would be sad, Haslinger remembers, but never fed up and intent on giving up.

In the end, Wilkins and his colleagues on the NRA saved more buildings than were lost. His kind heart, love of humanity and community, incredible resilience and good nature kept not only his own spirits up, but those of others on the NRA during the six years he served as its chairman before retiring in September of 1972.

Along with Lawler, former mayor Byron Matthews (1968 to 1978) praised Wilkins as "a great man." His successor at the NRA, Jack Bradshaw, still remembers the wonder of working with Wilkins.

"You just don't know what a pleasure it was for a young person like me to work with him," Bradshaw said recently. "He was just wonderful."

Bradshaw's tribute to Wilkins upon his retirement in 1972, pretty much said it all.

"When we were an hour and a penny away from bankruptcy, Dr. Wilkins brought us through," Bradshaw was reported to say in 1972. "He always came prepared; he did more homework than most of his students combined. ... It was his jovial mood that brought the Authority up when we were down; he always had a timely joke to put things back on the table and put us ahead."

To this add one more telling trait to Wilkins' character: "He was an absolutely wonderful and loving father," Haslinger said.

After Robert Wilkins' death in 2003, his daughter Mary Wilkins Haslinger found the following well-worn and somewhat tattered note to himself in his wallet. She shared it with Daily News to relate her fathers' philosophy and beliefs to our readers.

"Be more considerate about others

Be moderate in all things

Be honest, admit it when wrong

Be studious and industrious

Listen well; be slow to speak

Be kind, dependable, loyal and thoughtful

Shun jealousy, vindictiveness, over-competitiveness and meanness. Love and admire others

Let consciousness of the job well done, not public praise, be the reward. Give praise, don't seek it

Be patient, wait for the good things to happy; they will come in time

Never compromise with mediocrity; always strive for excellence

Follow the intimations of the will of God

Accept the inevitable with grace, and humor, and misfortune with equanimity

Profit from criticism"

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