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Life among the stars

Portrait of the socialite as a young man: Wallace P. Watkins, from the 1940 Epitome.

Some people make it to Hollywood by way of the legitimate theatre, others by apprenticing in the world of independent films, and still others by pulling up their bootstraps and trudging from audition to audition until they're finally "discovered." Oh, and of course, there are those who get there by digging graves, selling stamps, and managing the home appliance department at Sears.

Well, at least that's how Wally Watkins '40 got there.

Watkins has been a jack of many trades in his 88 years, but of one he's an absolute master: socializing. In fact, his people skills are so finely honed that he's attracted some of the world's most famous and interesting personalities into his life.

Case in point. A few years back, Watkins and his wife, Virginia, attended a wedding reception at a restaurant in Palm Springs, California. As it turned out, another dinner party, given by a well-known celebrity, was taking place in another dining room. Watkins had an idea. He wrote the fellow a note:

"Sorry to bother you, but it was a thrill seeing you at your table as we came in. I just had to let you know that two of your very best 'fans' are here -- my wife and myself! We go back to your earliest days, when Tommy Dorsey introduced you as his new vocalist at Frank Dailey's 'Meadowbrook' in Pompton Lakes, N.J., and we were in the audience at the Paramount Theatre in New York in '43 when all those teenage girls in bobby sox ran screaming down the center aisle as you came on stage to sing. This is an opportunity to thank you (almost in person) for the many years of wonderful entertainment you have given us.

"I would like to ask a favor. We are having a wedding reception dinner in here. What a thrill it would be if someone like you came to the door and congratulated the young couple! They would talk about it for the rest of their lives."

The celebrity never came to the door, but he did give them something to remember him by: six bottles of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild, along with a message to stop by and say hello after dinner. "And bring that guy who wrote the note with you," he added.

Luckily, Watkins had a camera with him, and the star agreed to have his picture taken with the newlyweds. Ever since, an enlarged, framed copy of that photograph has hung on a wall in the couple's home to remind them of the special day on which they started their life together and -- thanks to Wally Watkins -- met Frank Sinatra.

Watkins, right, and his wife, Virginia, left, with Bob and Dolores Hope.

Watkins has a trunk full of stories like that. He can tell you how he danced with celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee or walked down a street holding the hand of his old friend Bill Locklear's darling 8-year-old daughter, Heather. He can recount the night he befriended actress and champion swimmer Esther Williams at a dinner engagement and describe an exhibition boxing match between Bob Hope and Sugar Ray Robinson on Hope's estate -- Phyllis Diller jumped in and won the fight, by the way.

Watkins even managed to show up on the silver screen himself. A close friend who worked as a freelance casting director in the film industry called one day with a job offer. He needed an "extra" for a movie, called F.I.S.T., then being shot in Culver City. Watkins would play the part of a senator at a congressional hearing for a labor leader inspired by the late Jimmy Hoffa.

It was, of course, a non-speaking role. Another senator, played by Rod Steiger, had most of the lines, along with Sylvester Stallone, who played the labor leader.

Of course, Watkins would never ask an actor for an autograph. Esther Williams had warned him against that right before he met Greer Garson for the first time. "That's for little kids to do," she said, "and celebrities don't like it."

But Wally, being Wally, couldn't resist the temptation of telling Steiger, between scenes, how much he and Virginia had loved his work in On the Waterfront, Oklahoma, and Dr. Zhivago.

"He was certainly one of the greatest actors ever to come on the big screen," Watkins says.

"And he was so nice to thank me for my compliments and then to ask all about me and my family as though he really cared."

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Watkins, right, and three Blair Academy classmates with Bing Crosby in 1936.

Although Watkins was born in Los Angeles, he took the long way 'round to reach Hollywood -- by way of New Jersey. His mother brought him there after she had divorced his father and married an Easterner. The family lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., for two years, then finally settled in Glen Ridge, a small town in northern New Jersey, where Watkins spent the rest of his childhood.

True to his nature, Watkins spent more time socializing than studying, so when the time came to apply to colleges, his grades at Glen Ridge High School weren't stellar enough to secure him a berth at Princeton University, where he intended to matriculate. But Watkins wasn't discouraged. He knew how to handle setbacks.

"If my grades weren't good enough," he says, "I would just to go back to school and bring them up. So I attended Blair Academy, a prep school in Blairstown, N.J., for a year."

By the time he graduated, he was less certain about his future. Three close friends at Blair had been selling him on the idea of going with them to Lehigh to study engineering. He would have given an easy thumbs-up, but there was a problem: Engineers had to be good with numbers.

"I had very low grades in math, even at Blair," he says. "I had a real struggle, and you can't be an engineer if you can't do math."

Fortunately, Lehigh offered other options, including one that really appealed to him: business administration. Watkins signed on and never looked back.

Campus life offered him opportunities to become involved in extracurricular activities -- lots of them. "I was in more activities than anybody else, about 20 different organizations.

I was the president of Sigma Omicron Delta Kappa, the senior honorary, activities fraternity; business manager of the newspaper; assistant manager of the swim team; and vice president of the Mustard and Cheese drama club. But my favorite activity was dating the girls from Moravian Seminary across the river from Lehigh. After I'd gone out with five different girls from one of their sororities, Alpha Epsilon Pi, I was made an honorary member!"

After graduating in 1940, Watkins enlisted in the army. He completed basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and moved on to Fort Eustis, Virginia, where he was assigned to the coastal artillery. He also volunteered to become assistant to one of the base chaplains, a job that kept him from shipping out to the Southwest Pacific with the rest of his unit after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Soon he we Club, and he still maintains his real estate license.

He'll tell you he's had a great life, but he takes no credit for it. He chalks it all up to luck.

"I have had a wonderful wife for 61 years, four marvelous children, and six beautiful grandchildren. I live in the best country in the world, the best state in the country, the best county in the state, the best city in the county, and by far the best retirement community anywhere! How lucky can you be?"

Those who know him, however, would tell you luck had nothing to do with it. In 1940, the Lehigh yearbook named him "Outstanding Socialite," and that's been the story of his life.

Fact is, Wally Watkins is just a great guy to know.

--E. A. Tremblay

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Spring 2005

Posted on Friday, June 24, 2005

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