Executive Director of Graceful Living
Rhonda Wilkins worked almost every job at Balmar Printing & Graphics, Inc. before becoming Senior Executive. She learned the value of hard work at an early age from both her parents. Eventually, Wilkins married the love of her life, Calvin Howard Wilkins, Jr., the former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands under G.W. Bush as well as a highly successful businessman.
Tell me about your father.
My father was an entrepreneur, a very hard-working man. We were raised in Northern Virginia. I remember, he and my mother, leaving every morning for work at 6:00 AM. My father worked at the Pentagon at the time. He would come home, and then he would go to a second job. Then, he would come home, and he would work. We had a printing press in the basement of our house. When he would get work orders, he would have his five kids and my mother collate the jobs by hand on a huge billiard table in our basement. After a while, he became so successful in his printing business that he was bought out by a company called Balmar. He eventually became a VP principal there. And so, he was off to the races.
Was your childhood happy?
That is hard to answer. Early on, my parents always tried to have mealtime together. We were all very active. We played a lot of sports. My father would coach my brothers on the baseball and football team and things like that when he could.
Take your time. Be kind to yourself. Open your eyes. Be very careful who you trust. Find a practice of some sort that makes you feel good and do it. Do not say, ‘I’m doing it,’ but do it. Be true to that because it will help heal some of those wounds.
What was your favorite sport?
Running. I don’t run as regularly as I used to. I had a stress fracture in my right hip, and so I just slowed down a little bit after that. However, I competed in high school.
Can you tell me about your mother?
My mom died a year ago in July. I did not realize until recently the extent to which our mother gave us the wonderful and unique gifts that we have today. My mom was one of five children herself. She was also the youngest. Her mother lived with us growing up; I was 13 when she died. At the time, my mom worked at the Pentagon as well. When she came home, she did laundry; she did all the housekeeping. She did everything. We did not have any outside help, and she had five kids. Christmas was her favorite holiday, and she would make all five of us sit on the couch and watch her decorate the tree as she perfectly put each little icicle on it, little ornaments, everything. The expensive ones had to be at the top. The ones that you made at school could be on the bottom. Holidays and special days were always made to feel special. Christmas was her favorite holiday and was a big deal to her. Birthdays were big and anniversaries were important. Mother would take us to craft stores and ask her daughters to pick out a board and pick out a scene. We would create what was eventually placed underneath the tree for Christmas decorations. Her creativity and love of beautiful things really planted a seed in me. She taught us how to wrap gifts with such precise detail. You don’t take a square and cut around a square. No, that would be wasting paper. You have to cut the paper straight down the line. And, you cannot use much tape either. She was such a perfectionist in everything she did. She just made everything, cooking, whatever, exceptional.
When did you first recognize that she was suffering, that she was struggling?
I was very young. I was in sixth grade when my mom tried to commit suicide. She attempted suicide and went to a mental institution after that. We visited her there, obviously.
Your mother suffered from more than mental health challenges?
Yes, a broken heart. Back when she was married to my father, it was a time where you never got divorced. You just stayed together. You worked through it. No matter what. Today, it’s very commonplace that people get divorced. So, I think their breakup also broke her heart. My mom was valedictorian of her class and was a very, very smart woman. She married quite young and had five kids by the time she was 24. I think the pressure of raising five children and making sure they were safe and fed, while also being a perfectionist, was just too much. I remember she would make us take everything out of the house in April. Every stitch of furniture, everything was removed from the closets, and we would clean it from top to bottom. “You are going to get rid of this. You are going to get rid of that,” she would say.
Do you think you married later in life because of those experiences?
You have an inner voice that you should listen to. I was engaged before I was married, and my inner voice said, “You can’t do this,” so I didn’t.
“As you get older, you need less. You don’t need more. What is important is life, love, your faith and surrounding yourself with lots of girlfriends.”
“I loved him from head to toe, and we just laughed. We traveled the world. We made relationships. We made new friends. I mean, it was a fairytale. He was strong and kind and generous.”
Maybe you were more insightful than most people that marry and then go through a divorce because of what you had previously experienced?
Probably. I never want to settle. I think, once you settle, you have to be quiet.
You worked your way from the bottom to Senior Executive at Balmar Printing & Graphics.
When my parents finally divorced, I was 19, and my brothers and sisters were all out of the house. My mom had a meltdown of sorts and went off the deep end. She gave me a week to move out of the house. I had nowhere to go. She, quite frankly, didn’t care at that point. She had met a man, and she was moving to Florida. A week later, she literally was gone. I spent a couple of nights on a park bench with my cat. I called my father, who I hadn’t spoken to in quite a long time, and I asked him if he could please help me. I told him, “I can’t do this anymore.” And so, he got me an apartment, and I went to work. He started me in the shipping department, and then I went on to what they call the bindery. Next, I went on to customer service, followed by accounting. From there, I went on to sales, and finally, I became a senior executive. I also was a receptionist at one point.
How did you meet your husband?
I was seeing an eye doctor, and he was seeing the same eye doctor in Bethesda, Maryland. She said, “You know, Rhonda, you really need to meet this guy.” And she said, “No, really, you need to meet this guy.” So, I finally said okay. She was telling him the same thing. She and her husband were sitting outside. It was a beautiful August night. I was 20 minutes late. Nothing new, but I have gotten better. Anyway, he was sitting there. I walked up, and he had these twinkly blue eyes. They just sparkled, and I sat down to his left, and we had dinner. I excused myself later and went to the restroom; I came back, and everyone was gone except him. I was a little nervous. A little. I talked with him for a little bit longer, maybe an hour or so. We got up and walked around Bethesda a little bit. He walked me to my car like a gentleman, and he said, “I’m leaving town for a couple of weeks. I’ll call you when I get back.” So, he did exactly that, and we started dating.
At the time, I had such responsibility. I had five people that were working with me, and I had to be loyal to them. He wanted to travel everywhere and anywhere. It sounds really great, but I had this thing called a job and responsibility. Eventually, I said to him, “I can’t do this anymore.” He was still dating other women and so on and so forth. He was going to all these charity balls and things, and I went to several, but I didn’t go to all of them; he had other dates. We were in Key Biscayne, Florida, and I told one of our houseguests, which just happens to be a dear friend of his, that I had to go home. I can’t do this. I would eventually lose my job. So, I called and changed my flight to leave that afternoon. He asked me if I wanted to go to the beach club. I said, “Yes, but I will be leaving early today.” I walked over by myself, and he met me in the parking lot and asked if we could talk. He took me by the hand and said, “Let’s go on the beach,” and I said, “Okay.” Meanwhile, his five kids were in the swimming pool, and my sister-in-laws were all waving to us. He said, “You know, I don’t want to lose you. I love you. I’d like to marry you and love you forever. Let’s get married.” We both cried. He went on and searched for a ring.
How did he actually propose to you?
He took the ring, and he wrapped it around my chocolate Lab’s neck. My dog Coca was like, “What did I do wrong? This thing’s on my neck.” Coca walked over to me, and I opened it up, and he asked me if I would marry him. He said he wanted to be married in a castle. So, we went to Italy and we started looking at castles, settling on a place called Borgo San Felice, which is just outside of Siena. Then, it had 44 rooms, but they’ve since expanded to 53 as well as a house off-property, which is a Michelin Star and highly rated. I don’t think it was a five-star at that time actually, but it is now. We were married in a fourth century church, Hamlet. It was just a fairytale.
When did you concede or recognize that your husband would not get better?
You know, I have to be honest with you. He died Christmas Eve 2016. We had just been in the hospital and he had come home that Thursday. They did not send us home with Hospice. They didn’t send me home thinking that he was going to pass. While he was in incredibly bad shape, he was still moving, getting up, and he had nurses come in daily. It wasn’t an obvious thing for me. It was shocking actually. When he passed, I was in terrible shock. I couldn’t even speak.
What lessons have you learned that might help someone who has lost their best friend, loved one, and husband?
Take your time. Be kind to yourself. Open your eyes. Be very careful who you trust. Find a practice of some sort that makes you feel good and do it. Do not say, “I’m doing it,” but do it. Be true to that because it will help heal some of those wounds. I learned from people, advisers, and lawyers, that it will be better. It just takes time. Friends, of course, help if they have been through it. But what I learned about myself was I am very different than a lot of people in my position. I don’t need a lot. I was so happy. I slept on the couch for eight months during that process. We had rented an apartment in West Palm for a housekeeper, and I slept on the couch there. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but that is where I grew inside. I mean, when you go through six moves in eight months, things get real. I was very happy to live there and know where everything was, and it was just simpler. I’m in this big house now, and it’s complicated, to be quite honest. Moving forward, I know I like smaller spaces, and I don’t need a lot. I didn’t know that before, and it is okay. It really is okay because what you own, owns you. As you get older, you need less. You don’t need more. What is important is life, love, your faith, and surrounding yourself with lots of girlfriends.