UI’s Wilkins fascinated by death


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Darrell Wilkins’ life began with death.

Not the death of a close family member, but the idea of it.

As a child, Wilkins’ mother would bring him and his brother to the cemetery to play — because the two boys “couldn’t hurt anything out there.” But their graveyard games had an unexpected effect on Wilkins.

They fascinated him.

“I always wanted to go to a funeral. I was about 4 years old, [my mom] took me to a funeral for an old gentleman,” Wilkins said. “To this day, I can tell you where I sat at the old funeral, clear as a bell to me. It ignited a fire in me.”

Fittingly, the now 65-year-old director of the University of Iowa’s Deeded Body Program sits in his office, a converted morgue.

Tall, metal cabinets and an industrial-sized sink line the back wall. In a corner where most offices would have a coffee table or potted plant sits a large deep freeze.

And from this white-walled room, Wilkins directs the program in charge of taking in donated bodies, and distributing organs, tissues, and whole specimens to different UI departments for research and education.

But his work in the program pales in comparison with his extracurricular efforts as one of the original members of the national Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. Wilkins has been deployed to clean up after disasters that cause massive fatalities, including Hurricane Katrina, the tornado this summer in Joplin, Mo., and 9/11.

“It was a very sobering experience to see all the damage that was there,” he said, remembering his time working at the receiving morgue after 9/11, just around the corner from the two towers. “It was sad work, humbling work, but it was what needed to be done. You don’t think about it, you just do it.”

That mindset of keeping work separate from his life outside the office has helped Wilkins stay positive throughout his years.

“He is one of the lucky ones; he has been able to detach himself from his work, it does stop at the door,” said Valarie Spurbeck, the youngest of Wilkins’ two daughters.

While Spurbeck was growing up, Wilkins’ work as a mortician kept him away since “you never know when someone is going to die,” but she said he always made the times they had together fun.

And that is a practice Wilkins has carried with him every step of the way.

He opened a door from his office that led straight into a workroom where recently donated bodies are prepared and embalmed. Pointing toward the back cabinet, filled with a rainbow of brightly colored bottles of embalming fluid, he commented, “different strokes for different folks” and jokingly offered to whip up a cocktail that “if you drink it, I guarantee they will carry you out of here.”

And this fun-loving spirit is not lost on his employees.

Dennis Mickelson, an anatomy mortician who has worked with Wilkins since 1996, said he tries to emulate Wilkins’ motto: “Don’t sweat the little things.”

Amazingly, Wilkins appears to live by that motto. Having been surrounded by more death and destruction than most, he somehow keeps a smile and a positive outlook, and is always ready to help.

“That is just who he is,” Spurbeck said. “If there is something he can do for somebody, he would give the shirt off his back if he had to. I think he does it because if the need was ever there for him or his family, he hopes someone would do it for them.”

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