By Cassandra Day - Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Middletown mourns death of Justin Wilkie, 30:
‘Bright, shining light of our future’
MIDDLETOWN — The community is grappling with the loss of a man who, by all accounts, was a beacon of light and joy — an uncommon individual whose touch, however brief, made a profound impact on those he met.
“He turned strangers into friends,” said Justin Wilkie’s mother, Karen Wilkie.
The 30-year-old died early Saturday following a 3 a.m. accident on Interstate 91 in Rocky Hill. He was a passenger in car that crashed into a tractor trailer that was parked on the highway shoulder.
In July, Wilkie joined the Middlesex United Way as developmental director. He was a natural to fundraising, said Executive Director Kevin Wilhelm, his close friend for three years.
“It wasn’t work. It wasn’t a job. He’d say to me, ‘Mom, this is my passion,’” said his mother, a nurse who recently moved to Middletown from Texas. “He used to say to me, ‘If I could change one life at a time, that’s all that matters,’” she recalled.
“The kid never stopped smiling. He smiled throughout everything,” said his mother, who just settled in to the Thimble Rock Road home her son purchased with an in-law suite. “I used to call him my ray of sunshine. I can’t tell you, when he would talk about work, the joy, the joy to know that he was doing something,” Karen Wilkie said.
“It’s hard to overstate the impact Justin had on everyone he touched,” Wilhelm said. Just last week, Justin Wilkie was elected to the Old Saybrook Chamber of Commerce board of directors, Wilhelm said, a rare honor for such a young person. “He was an irreplaceable human being,” Wilhelm said.
At the annual meeting, Justin Wilkie took part in the auction for a $25 framed poster: “It was some wonderful image that said ‘community’ on it,” Wilhelm said. Justin Wilkie bid as high as $300, “and he ended up losing,” Wilhelm said, marveling at the memory. The poster sold for $350. “‘I really wanted it, but once I realized I could buy it the next day for $25, I just did. I saved a lot of money.’” Wilhelm said, with a laugh at the retelling. “He was willing to pay $300 because at the moment, he saw himself in that poster.”
Growing up in Manchester, the son of a research scientist father, Wilkie was extremely protective of his mother and younger sister Kayla Drake, 27. “It was very scary for me starting high school and he made sure he was always there if I needed him,” said Drake, a speech therapist.
Justin Wilkie was very popular in high school, his mother said, and he and his sister hung around with the same young men. “Although none of the boys would touch her,” Karen Wilkie said, with a laugh.
Drake said she and Wilkie grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of children. “It was almost all boys. I used to say, ‘I grew up with a bunch of brothers.’ “All of the kids we grew up with, I feel like they’ve lost a brother, too,” Drake said.
Justin Wilkie and his girlfriend Alexis Olechno, who has a 3-year-old son, had plans to be married at Wickham Park in Manchester. It was more important to Justin Wilkie to purchase a house for Olechno and her boy than an engagement ring, his mother explained.
When Justin Wilkie began working for United Way, it became very important for him to make his home in the community, his mother said. Patti Anne Vassia, former executive director of Middlesex United Way, was introduced to Justin Wilkie by a Middletown Rotary Club member who wanted Vassia to recruit him. At the time, Wilkie was a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America, Connecticut Rivers Council. “I was so taken with this young man. From the day we met, we had this instant connection,” said Vassia. She became his mentor. “He was amazing. We became very close very quickly.” Soon, he was elected to the board.
Justin Wilkie texted Vassia a photo Olechno took of him at Charter Oak Park in Manchester on Thanksgiving Day after they watched the Manchester Road Race together. In it, the young man grins, leaning up against the Manchester Rotary Club’s obelisk engraved with The Rotary International motto, “Service Above Self.” When Vassia saw the photo, “I said, ‘I always regretted that our Rotary didn’t do something visible like that in Middletown.’ “And his first comeback to that was, ‘Well, what do we have to do to make it happen?’ He always saw the potential in an idea. “I said, ‘That’s a topic for another day. Enjoy your day,’” Vassia laughed, recalling their exchange.
Toward the end of every weekly Rotary Club meeting at First & Last Tavern on Main Street, members carry out a tradition by passing around a “Happy Dollars” basket, said Co-President Cheryl Duey. Tuesday’s meeting was so bittersweet, she said. “I encouraged the group, in Justin’s memory, to share something that celebrated his life,” Duey said.
“If you met him, you’d never forget him. He was so positive and fun and nice, and had a smile on his face all the time,” Duey said. So it was a natural for the club to deem Justin Wilkie the meeting greeter. “Anybody that walked through the door got greeted by Justin and he just put you in a good mood,” she said. “He just had this spark — he had this light. When people gave their dollars, there were so many comments about his smile, and the light that he had inside that he shared with people,” Duey said.
Wilkie evoked strong emotions in many people he met, Wilhelm said, precisely because he always put others first. Rotary membership by younger folks is waning, Wilhelm acknowledged. “He was by far the youngest person in the room. He was an anomaly in the room because of his age.” Yet, already, following Tuesday’s meeting, two of Wilkie’s friends committed to joining the club, Duey said, inspired by his commitment.
The club didn’t have anyone to help run the Middletown Rotary’s participation in the national Amber Alert program, Duey said. Once Justin Wilkie heard that, he immediately signed on, she said. “It’s that ‘I can’ attitude, but it’s more than ‘I can.’ It’s ‘I will do it.’ And he always raised his hand to volunteer — always,” Vassia said.
“We are all grieving from our personal loss of that energy: that bright, shining light of our future,” Vassia said. “We saw — Kevin, particularly — that this was the person who could follow in his footsteps as he did in mine. “And so there’s a picture of the three of us — the past, the present, and the future,” Vassia said. “It was like the Three Musketeers. It’s painful in that way, too,” she said. “On so many levels.”
Managing Editor Cassandra Day can be reached at email@example.com.
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