Obituary: James A. Wilkinson / Deep connection to the PSO for nearly 40 years
Feb. 10, 1945 - April 15, 2017
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
James A. Wilkinson
James and Susanne Wilkinson
By Andrew Goldstein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Michael Bielski, former senior vice president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, said he’ll never forget a conversation he had about 20 years ago after concluding contract negotiations between musicians and orchestra management.
“I remember this musician came up to me and said, ‘I would follow that man anywhere,’ ” Mr. Bielski said. “And he was talking about Jim.”
“Jim” was, of course, James A. Wilkinson, who worked in various capacities for the PSO over a span of nearly 40 years, including a stint as its president and CEO from 2011 to 2015. A respected, diplomatic negotiator who had deep involvement in the Pittsburgh arts scene, Mr. Wilkinson died Saturday at UPMC St. Margaret of complications from several health issues, according to his wife, Susanne. He was 72.
Born Feb. 10, 1945, in Cumberland, Md., Mr. Wilkinson served in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1971 before landing a job in President Richard Nixon’s White House. From 1972 to 1973, he worked for Caspar Weinberger in the Office of Management and Budget.
Mr. Wilkinson came to Pittsburgh in 1974 and worked as a senior financial analyst with U.S. Steel Corp. where he negotiated more than 60 collective bargaining agreements with various unions. He also attended Duquesne University law school, graduating in 1978. From 1982 to 1988, he chaired the health law section at the Downtown law firm Buchanan Ingersoll.
Mr. Wilkinson first became involved with the PSO in 1976 when he helped settle a musicians’ strike. Negotiating with musicians on behalf of the PSO’s management became routine for Mr. Wilkinson over the next several decades.
“Jim negotiated every labor contract going back to 1976, and I can’t think of another person who had more of an impact on the symphony than did Jim Wilkinson,” said Richard P. Simmons, former PSO chairman. “He had a great credibility with the orchestra, was held in high respect.”
With the PSO facing financial struggles in 2011, Mr. Wilkinson got the musicians to agree to a 9.7 percent pay cut — one of the biggest wage reductions in the PSO’s history — and a $200,000 donation from their strike fund.
“I think it was remarkable, and it was a reflection of the high-regard that Jim was held in by the orchestra,” Mr. Simmons said.
Mr. Wilkinson’s involvement in the Pittsburgh art’s community was not limited to the PSO. He chaired the collections committee at the Andy Warhol Museum and was on the board of trustees for the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Wilkinson shared an interest in the arts with his wife and earned a master's in art history at the University of Pittsburgh in 2001. His acumen at the negotiating table gave him skills that helped him pursue other interests.
“He was focused on whatever he was interested in doing,” said Mrs. Wilkinson, 72, of O’Hara. “He wasn’t judgmental, he wasn’t emotional. He was ... somebody that had a lot of common sense.”
Mr. Wilkinson was seriously injured in a crash in 2005 on U.S. route 101 in California when his rental car veered off the roadway at a high rate of speed and struck a tree. He underwent multiple surgeries at a California hospital before being taken to UPMC Presbyterian, where he contracted a near-fatal bacterial infection.
The crash and infection took a toll on Mr. Wilkinson and led to other health issues, but he nonetheless continued to work and in 2011 became president and CEO of the PSO.
“What happened to him I think would have killed a normal person,” Mr. Bielski said. “But his will to live, his strength really carried him though.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Wilkinson is survived by a daughter, Kathryn Hoke of Austin, Texas; and a brother, Stephen Wilkinson of Cumberland, Md. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.