Max E. Wilkes, the Phenix City councilman known for his decades of officiating youth sports and serving many roles in city government, died late Thursday at a Columbus hospital. He was 73.
Wilkes’ death surprised friends and city officials, many of whom crowded a waiting area at St. Francis Hospital after learning he’d been stricken by an apparent aneurysm.
City leaders couldn’t recall another sitting council member dying in office. Wilkes’ term was set to expire in about two weeks, and the seat won’t be filled before the swearing in next month of the new council.
Mayor Sonny Coulter, whose decision to retire prompted Wilkes to run for mayor this summer, said it was “real gratifying to know how much people thought of Max,” noting the overflow crowd at the hospital. “He always did everything that he did with a great passion and had a great love for the entire community, as evidenced by his contributions,” Coulter said.
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Councilman Jimmy Wetzel remembered his longtime friend as a “kind and gentle man” who applied his refereeing skills to consensus building in city government.
“Max has made many great contributions to the city of Phenix City,” Wetzel said. “He was very easy to do business with.”
Jim Lynn, a local writer and political observer, said Wilkes was friends with “everybody in town.”
“He was the only person in Phenix City who was friends with both Sonny Coulter and Jimmy Wetzel at the same time,” Lynn said.
Wilkes achieved a long-time goal at his final council meeting Tuesday as council approved the $1.4 million construction of a new community center at Idle Hour Park, a building that one day may be named for Wilkes. Coulter said he congratulated Wilkes on bringing the pet project to fruition after the meeting.
“He said, ‘It does make me feel good, but I just hope that I live to see it,’” Coulter said.
Wilkes was known as a dedicated city employee who worked in virtually every department within the city over a career that spanned three decades. Many others will remember him in uniform calling youth sporting events the only way he knew how — like he saw them. Indeed, coaches who knew him said his calls were straighter than the stripes on his shirt.
Bobby Wright, the long-time Central High basketball coach, said Wilkes was probably the fairest and nicest official he encountered in his many years of coaching.
“Max was awfully hard to get upset with because his demeanor was just so pleasing — he was a nice guy,” Wright said in a telephone interview. “I really kind of hated for Max to call my games because I like to get on the referees a little bit, but I found that hard to do with Max.”
Wilkes had a lifelong love of sports — if not an addiction to them — and for half a century officiated local football, softball, baseball and basketball games at the high school and amateur level. That commitment was enshrined in January when he was selected for the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame. He had been inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame last year, the sport’s highest honor.
“He was well respected,” said Gary Head, a friend who officiated games with Wilkes. “He was well organized. He was just a good guy.”
Wilkes was born Sept. 5, 1939, in Barbour County to the late Alto Wilkes and Stella Baker Wilkes. A native of Clio, Ala., Wilkes’ family moved to Phenix City when he was in the fourth grade.
The move opened up a new opportunity to sports that Wilkes embraced at Central High, playing football, basketball, baseball and track. Some two years out of high school, he began coaching a youth football team, a passion he continued for some 25 years.
“Watching those 11- and 12-year-olds go on and excel and be citizens was quite rewarding,” Wilkes said earlier this year.
Wilkes began officiating high school football in 1963 and remained active until recently. He also had served as the booking agent for the Phenix City Football Officials’ Association the past 25 years.
Wilkes applied for his first position with the city in the late 1970s, and began working under former Mayor George E. H. Chard in the city’s first council-manager form of government. He was hired as clerk of municipal court and served in that capacity alone for 18 years.
He assumed the additional duties of administrative assistant to the city manager in May 1996 and served briefly as the acting city clerk in 2001. He became interim city manager in January 2003 and held that position for about two years.
“There’s been a lot that I’ve gotten to do in city government,” Wilkes told an audience during a candidate forum before the Aug. 28 election. “City government’s been my life. I understand it. I know how it works.”
Wilkes was elected in August 2008 without opposition to the city’s north side District 1 seat on City Council. He had sued the city in 2007 after his Municipal Court position was eliminated and he was let go; council voted to settle the claim for $70,000 shortly after taking office.
About a year ago, Wilkes announced that he intended to run for mayor. He considered himself a favorite at the time and later said he hadn’t expected Mayor-elect Eddie Lowe to join the race.
Wilkes finished second in the four-man contest, capturing about 27 percent of the vote to Lowe’s 64 percent. His defeat came in an election in which voters rejected any semblance of the status quo, and Wilkes took it to heart.
“Max and his wife were both devastated by the outcome of the election, and I don’t think it was necessarily just that he lost,” Wetzel said. “They felt like a lot of their lifelong friends let them down.”
Wilkes is survived by his wife of 52 years, Malinda Weaver Wilkes, daughter Allison Wilkes Chandler and son M. Fletcher Wilkes among other family members.
Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. EDT Monday at Lakewood Baptist Church, where Wilkes was a member. Visitation is set for 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at Vance Memorial Chapel.