Thurston Watkins: Notably Notorious

BY Pam Miller

Born and reared in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach Thurston Watkins Jr. has seen numerous changes to our area in the past 75 years. A lover of good stories he’s not only spent his life telling them he’s also created them — endless tales dating back to the 1940s and running right up until today. Over the years he has written dozens of published letters to the editor and made headline after headline with his achievements. When he sent us the unforgettable 1950 photograph of himself as a young man on chair with a fishing rod on an aquaplane being pulled through the water we thought it was about time someone told his story.

“There’s a lot of mischief a young boy in a small town can get himself into ” Watkins says and he was no exception. In fact some long-time locals might remember a widely published 1940s photograph of a young man and two women in an unusual looking boat. That young man was Watkins and he designed and helped build the unusual boat from two old and used plane pontoons latched together with a motorboat engine attached on the back. “After World War II was over I was 15 years old and I went to a surplus store and saw these tanks for sale and had an idea for a boat ” says Watkins. He asked his father to buy the pontoons drew a sketch for the boat and then helped some local builders put it together.

Watkins was also one of the first water-skiers in Wrightsville Beach and the very first according to Watkins himself to water-ski barefoot. A photograph of him scooting along the water without skis was plastered on the front page of the Wilmington News on September 3 1959. “It was taken a couple hundred yards north of the Blockade Runner. Of course there was no Blockade Runner then ” Watkins laughs. He has a standing invitation to water-ski barefoot for the newspaper anytime an offer he took advantage of again for the Wilmington Morning Star in 1987 at the age of 56.

Watkins also channeled his imagination into the creation of another newsworthy event after seeing the boats race in the Wrightsville Beach sound. “I got the wild idea to have a ski race. There were 12 or 15 of us out there and why someone didn’t get killed going into that first curve with all the ski ropes tangling up all the skiers … that was the first and last ski race ” recalls Watkins.

But Watkins didn’t only dabble in water sports he also made headlines as a forward for the Wilmington College (before it became UNCW) Seahawks basketball team. In 1951 Watkins led his team to its first win after 34 straight losses by scoring 30 points (before there were three-pointers).

He also was interested in cars especially in seeing how fast they could go. “I got the racing bug when I was 20 years old. One Sunday morning I snitched Daddy’s car the Kaiser and I get two of my buddies and we head out to Legion Stadium and I put it on the track ” remembers Watkins. This was during a time when the stadium was reserved for horses only and cars were not allowed on the track. “So we get up to this gate that opens off of the track. They jump out and open it. I said ‘Leave the gates open. We might have to leave pretty fast.’ So I got it up to about 80 and on the second or third lap there was so much dust it looked like the Lawrence of Arabia sandstorm and I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye … the horse guys. They had pitchforks shovels and everything.” Needless to say Watkins had to tear it out the open gate for safety and after washing all the dust off the Kaiser it looked as good as new. No one even knew it had left the garage.

From 1950 – 1966 Watkins worked at his father’s hardware store. “My daddy had a hardware store downtown — Watkins’ Paint and Hardware. It was the most famous place in town for men to gather and shoot the breeze. It was between Front and Water on Market Street ” recalls Watkins. “We had a Coke machine there. Coca-Colas were just a nickel and people would come from all over the place to drink those Cokes with ice in them.” After moving on from the hardware business Watkins took up contracting and built more than a hundred houses in Wilmington. “Wilmington was blooming then. It was a quiet city forever … then I went into building houses and I couldn’t build them fast enough ” says Watkins a father of three.

Newcomers who travel here from out of town might know Watkins for a different reason or at least they might know his words. You probably recall seeing the “Welcome to Wilmington” signs posted on the sides of our incoming highways. Look closer at the signs and you’ll read “Home of the North Carolina Azalea Festival” written underneath the welcome greeting. It was Watkins’ idea to put that there. He proposed it to Mayor Berry Williams in 1986 and the mayor made it happen. When the signs were taken down years later he went back to the mayor at that time Harper Peterson and had them reinstalled.

As for the 57-year-old photo of Watkins on the aquaplane; it wasn’t another of his wild schemes. His father Thurston Watkins Sr. thought it would make an interesting picture and needed someone to sit on the chair and hold the fishing rod. As you might have guessed Watkins was first in line.

Thurston Watkins Jr. has enough Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach stories to fill a few books. He has had adventures on both land and water from downtown to the beach. He’s one of the few Wilmingtonians who have lived here for 75 straight years and has never once even thought about moving anywhere else. “If you think [Wilmington] is good now there’s no way to describe how it used to be ” Watkins says. “Everybody knew each other. It was like our own private playground.”