W. E. “Bubber” Wilkes was an unwavering romantic. He met his wife, Gwen, when they were still teenagers, and they remained inseparable through 50 years of marriage. Gwen’s favorite flowers were daffodils. Every Valentine’s Day, Wilkes would present his wife with daffodils from “whatever roadside or pasture he’d be able to get flowers from,” said Peggy Hardigree.
Wilkes, a long-time commissioner who served on the BOC from 1985 to 2004 and from 2015 to present, died Saturday, March 21 after being hospitalized the previous day. He was 71 years old.
“Bubber loved Oconee County and was always a great advocate for its rural spaces, agricultural way of life, and employees,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman John Daniell.
“We could always count on him to promote farmland,” said Carole Ludwig, former chairwoman of the Farmland Preservation Committee. “He was always for the good of the farmer and landowners and what was right for the county.”
Dairy farmer Albert Hale, who served with Wilkes on the BOC in the 1990s, said Wilkes “always had rural Oconee County at his heart.”
Georgia Forestry Commission Director Chuck Williams said he remembers when a teenage Wilkes operated a peach stand where Doughby’s Pizza and More now stands.
“I was 10 years old, and he was 17; we would sit there for hours talking,” recalled Williams. “Growing up, he was just a friend to everybody.”
Wilkes was raised on a family farm on Flat Rock Road. In high school, he was active in the 4-H Program and served as president of the FFA.
Bishop Mayor Johnny Pritchett, who was in the FFA at the same time, remembers how the two of them attained the highest award in planting.
After graduating from Oconee County High School in 1966, Wilkes continued his education at Athens Technical School and received a degree in Mechanical Technology.
Wilkes served as a firefighter when the department was first getting off the ground. He also purchased turkeys from the Thaxton Turkey Hatchery. At one point, one out of 130 turkeys in the United States were hatched in Oconee County, said Bruce Thaxton.
Commissioner Mark Thomas said Wilkes’ father and uncles helped build turkey houses for their family and that Wilkes’ grandfather used to cut hair when Hot Thomas BBQ was a country store.
Wilkes was president of the Clarke-Oconee Cattlemen’s Association in the 1980s. He was named “Outstanding Young Farmer” by the Georgia Jaycees in 1981, and his family was honored as Oconee Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year in 1984. He served on the board of directors for the Farm Bureau from 1973 to 1990.
“I have memories … of seeing him and waving at him on a tractor, plowing and working the fields of the vast Wilkes family farm,” said Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith.
One day, Wilkes was out on the farm with his family when a woman started taking photos. She asked him if she could paint a mural from the photos she was taking. Wilkes agreed and loaned the painting to the
Oconee County Civic Center for public display.
Wilkes served on the Oconee Planning Commission from 1982 to 1984 and on the BOC for about 20 consecutive years from 1985 to 2004. He successfully ran again in 2014 and was reelected in 2018.
When Wilkes first ran for public office, he beat out four other challengers.
“When I first ran, he helped me,” said former commissioner Margaret Hale. “There were still gatherings where women were not allowed. … Bubber took me down a long, dirt road and said, ‘You are the only woman here. I didn’t tell you because I was afraid you wouldn’t come, but it’s important that you be here.”
Hale said even when she ran against Wilkes and lost, it was a clean race, and he was always a gentleman and friend.
Wilkes once lost a race to commissioner Chuck Horton, but the two developed a friendship with lots of humor and respect for each other. Horton said he admired how Wilkes voiced his opinion on the demolition of the Old Jail.
“When he was ill, Gwen would bring him to BOC meetings; we’d get there early, and we would sit and talk,” recalled Horton. “The night we voted on the demolition of the Old Jail, I told him he didn’t need to be there and that I would state his opposition for the record. But Bubber said, ‘I’m here, and I need to be here.’”
Wilkes was the sole commissioner to vote against demolishing the Old Jail, because of his appreciation for local history.
“I will always hold a high regard for him for that,” said former BOC Chairman Wendell Dawson, adding that he once joked he’d have to add a room to his house because of all the historical documents they’d share with each other. At family reunions, Wilkes was in charge of maintaining photo albums.
“He loved family. He loved farming. He loved Oconee County,” said his third cousin, Paula Nedza. “But the most important thing to him was God.”
Wilkes was a deacon at Antioch Christian Church.
“With his infectious smile and laugh, Bubber never met a stranger,” said former BOC Chairman Melvin Davis.
With high school football announcer Ben Bridges, Wilkes would rarely talk politics. Instead, they’d discuss church and family, farming and sports.
In 1990, Wilkes was featured on the cover of Athens Magazine with fellow baseball card collector Tuck Stephens. Throughout the decade, he was a prominent member of the TOPS Club and won myriad foot races and 5Ks.
“The running community will always cherish you and your family and hold you all in our hearts,” Holly Smith Gregg said.
After 30 years of raising turkeys and 12 years of raising chickens, Wilkes retired from farming
several years ago. In the 2010s, he was a security officer at Athens Regional Medical Center, an employee of Lord & Stephens Funeral Home and most importantly, a grandfather.
Memorial services will be held only for immediate family Thursday. This service will be streamed to Facebook and further details will be posted on the Jeff-Lauren Wilkes’ Facebook page. At 3 p.m., the funeral procession will leave Lord and Stephens West and head toward Antioch Christian Church via Mars Hill Road, through Butler’s Crossing and downtown Watkinsville. Extended family and friends are encouraged to stand along the route to pay their respects. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be directed to the American Kidney Fund at kidneyfund.org.
For more on this story, see the March 26 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, call (706) 769-5175 or visit the tab on our website.