University Letter

UND's faculty and staff newsletter

Remembering Wynona Marguerite Wilkins

Wynona Wilkins

Educator, author and musician, Wynona Marguerite Wilkins (née Huchette), died Dec. 23, 2021 at the age of 105 years. She taught French in the Languages Department from 1967 to her retirement in 1987.

An extraordinary woman of myriad talents, Wynona pursued many interests, both professional and personal, traveled extensively and excelled at academic and artistic endeavors alike.

Wynona was born on Dec. 6, 1916 at Point Marion, Pennsylvania, to Achille Joseph Huchette and Mabel Lillian Van Zandt. Eldest of three children, she showed great musical promise at an early age and was accelerated through grade school, eventually skipping three grades. She studied piano as a child and by the age of twelve worked with Volney Sheppard of West Virginia University.

In 1939 she graduated with highest honors from Indiana University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History. Subsequent graduate study led to a Master of Arts degree in History in 1941. Further musical study led to a degree in pipe organ from Wesley College Conservatory at Grand Forks. From 1947-1967 she served as organist at churches in Grand Forks and in West Virginia. From 1967 she was organist at Augustana Lutheran and played at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at Grand Forks until the 1990’s.

In June of 1937, Wynona married Robert Poole Wilkins and they embarked on a long life together sharing many academic projects, delving into family history and traveling for both research and pleasure. After a trip to France in 1958 she was inspired to undertake a serious study of the French language. The advent of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 led to new methods of foreign language teaching and she studied at the Summer Foreign Language Institutes for Secondary School Teachers in 1960 and 1962. In 1963 she received a scholarship to study at the University of Besançon in France. Her expertise in the language and in teaching led to work teaching French at the University of Oklahoma and for the US Peace Corps. From 1964-1967 she taught French at Huntington High School in West Virginia and European History at the Ironton Campus of Ohio University.

From 1967 until her retirement in 1987 she was a professor of French at the University of North Dakota.

With her husband Robert, who was a professor of history at UND, she co-authored two histories: God Giveth the Increase: The History of the Episcopal Church in North Dakota (1959) and North Dakota: A Bicentennial History (1977), a history of North Dakota which was one of 50 written in celebration of the bicentennial in 1976. In 1980 she wrote The First Hundred Years: the History of St. Paul’s Church. Additionally, she wrote articles for periodicals including the North Dakota Quarterly and wrote for Departmental Histories for the occasion of the UND centennial in 1983. Her article, “The Idea of North Dakota” gave her some notoriety as it was quoted in an interview in the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

Between 1968 and 1981, Wynona assisted Robert in editing the North Dakota Quarterly, a literary and public humanities journal whose roots lay in the early days of the University of North Dakota. Her skills in writing, typing and organizing led her to also edit the Foreign Language Association of North Dakota’s newsletter, the FLAND News from 1975 to 1987. She also served as editor of the North Star Quilter’s Guild newsletter for many years from the 1970’s.

Wynona’s interests ranged from photography and all manner of crafts and handwork to reading and crossword puzzles. As a young woman she had her own darkroom and supported herself by photographing young women whose husbands were away at war. She even taught herself to colorize these portraits. Together with Robert, she built a harpsichord, learned to cane chairs and was a master of all forms of needlework. She was devoted to quilting from the 1970’s and until her death crafted baby quilts for each baptized child at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. In both needlepoint and embroidery she created exquisite pieces. Her skill and speed in knitting yielded many cardigans for herself and Robert as well as beautiful sweaters for babies.

The combination of her passion for the French language and her genealogical research with Robert yielded warm and enduring friendships with distant relatives in France. She was also a strong believer in the idea that women should pursue their dreams. As a result, over the years she mentored many young women to persevere through academic studies even as they were raising children or enduring other challenges. These women ultimately became dear and enduring friends to her. Her love of travel and exploration was notable as well. Undaunted by the challenge, she skillfully drove on the left while traveling in Great Britain and relished air, train and car journeys.

Wynona was preceded in death by her husband Robert in 1998. She is survived by her daughter Harriet Eslinger (Fred) of Brandon, Manitoba, and by her son Robert H. Wilkins of San Diego, California, grandchildren Robert, Adelle, Alan and Catherine Eslinger and nine great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held  Thursday, May 19, at 2 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grand Forks.