Fairport High grad wins national teaching honor
Eric Wilkinson, a 1995 graduate of Fairport High School, is in tune with his students at Sumter High School in South Carolina where he has been the choral director for seven years.
His teaching efforts were recognized Oct. 9 by the Milken Family Foundation which honored him with its National Educator Award, the nation’s largest teacher recognition program of education professionals who are furthering excellence in education, according to its Web site: www.mff.org.
“It was a wonderful surprise and a tremendous honor,” Wilkinson said when reached at his school. “I was in complete shock.”
He said the school had called a special assembly, presumably to unveil a new initiative, but instead his award was announced by South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex before a packed gymnasium.
Wilkinson compared it to the Academy Awards, but for outstanding public educational performance.
“It’s kind of like winning the Oscar for teachers,” he explained. “They opened the envelope and said ‘The winner is Eric Wilkinson.’ I never thought I would be a candidate for something.”
Each recipient also receives $25,000 during special ceremonies in March in Los Angeles which Wilkinson said he is looking forward to. He has yet to decide how he’ll spend his award, but indicated a new car is a possibility with the rest probably being put away for long-term financial security.
“Eric is such a tremendous contribution to the school,” said Sumter School District 17 Superintendent Zona Jefferson. “He works well with his students. He is concerned with educating the whole student. He encourages his students to perform at higher levels than the children think they should, but his expectations for them make them perform at a higher level.”
Jefferson, 1996 recipient of the award and the only other winner in Sumter County, said she welcomed Wilkinson “to the club,” which she described as a special group of accomplished educators.
Wilkinsons’ mother, Mary Wilkinson, who still lives in Fairport with his father, Philip Wilkinson, said Eric has been interested in music “from the get go.”
As a toddler, she said he would hit individual notes on the piano instead of pounding the keys with his hands like most young children.
“He was always so aware of sound,” she said. “He did just one finger at a time to make it sound like something pleasant.” Mary Wilkinson said her son started formal lessons at age 7 at Manuels Music Studio and took private lessons from Maureen Oser, but that his real inspiration came from his grandmother, Dorothy Wilkinson, who lived in Westchester County.
“He would play the music for her over the phone,” Mary Wilkinson said, noting that at 90-years-old, Dorothy Wilkinson got to see Eric perform at his senior recital while a student at the University of New Hampshire where he played classical and jazz.
She said Eric was a product of the Fairport schools where Band Director Bill Tiberio remembers him as “a well-rounded student.”
Tiberio said the surprising thing is Eric Wilkinson was primarily instrumental at Fairport, but evolved into a choral educator.
“It’s been a thrill to watch his career develop,” Tiberio said. “I’m just so proud of what he’s done in South Carolina. It just sounds like they’ve really come to appreciate his skills and dedication as a teacher.”
Mary Wilkinson said her son took his first conducting class during a semester abroad in England with a professor from the University of New Hamphire where he earned a degree in music education. He later received a master’s in conducting at the University of South Carolina and went on to teach at Sumter.
“It’s not just his musical ability there,” Mary Wilkinson said. “It’s his human nature. He’s just very natural with people. He’s a natural teacher.”
“He’s very good with people and can talk and interest and motivate any age,” said his father, Philip Wilkinson. “I’m really proud of the way he relates to his students and just really has their personal growth in his heart. He just really does want them all to enjoy what they’re doing, set goals, work hard and achieve them.”
Eric Wilkinson’s students have performed at Carnegie Hall, the Washington National Cathedral, and Shrine of Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., the United Nations in New York City, and six times in the last seven years at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in South Carolina’s capital of Charleston.
“It’s been a joy working with these students and I’m just happy to bring some recognition to the arts and recognition to public school music,” Eric Wilkinson said. “I want to thank my (Fairport) teachers for helping me get to this point.”
The Wilkinsons said they are also proud of their other son, Philip Jr., Eric’s older brother, who is an architect in Boston.
Denise M. Champagne can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 352, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.