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BYU law professor, well-known Utah stage actor Richard Wilkins passes away at 59

PROVO — Retired BYU law professor Richard Wilkins, an international advocate for traditional family values and veteran local stage actor, died Monday at Utah Regional Medical Center. He was 59.

Wilkins had been hospitalized since collapsing over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Wilkins, an emeritus professor in the J. Reuben Clark Law School, specialized in constitutional law and civil procedure.

Outside the university, Wilkins was best known for his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Hale Centre Theatre's annual production of "A Christmas Carol." He was in rehearsals for the 28th season as Scrooge, said Sally Dietlein, an executive producer at Hale Centre Theatre.

Dietlein said Wilkins relished the Charles Dickens play "for what it said about the human condition," particularly the treatment of children who worked 15-18 hour days in factories.

"While Richard was very passionate about it, he loved letting Dickens be the purveyor of that information," she said.

On a personal level, Wilkins over the years shared the stage with members of Dietlein's family.

"It was very much like losing a family member for our children," she said.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she knew Wilkins on two fronts: as a staunch defender of the traditional family and the occasions he shared the stage with her daughter.

"We have great love for him and incredible respect," Ruzicka said.

Wilkins was respected worldwide for his advocacy of "keeping families together and keeping them close," she said.

In Utah, Wilkins was a "great resource. He'd always take my calls and help me when he could" by drafting legislation on pro-life and pro-family issues at the Utah Legislature, Ruzicka said.

As chairman of the Defend Marriage Coalition, Wilkins campaigned heavily for Amendment 3, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman only. The constitutional amendment was approved by Utah voters in 2004.

Ruzicka recalled one of Wilkins' international trips when he was sporting a beard because he was playing the role of Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" in a local production.

Fellow conference-goers assumed the bearded college professor "wasn't the conservative pro-life guy that he was. He said it opened all kinds of doors for him. He didn't look like the clean-cut BYU professor he normally was," Ruzicka said.

Wilkins' interest and involvement in worldwide issues related to the family began in 1996, when he traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, to attend the United Nations Habitat Conference.

He was selected to make a brief speech following that of speaker who urged delegates to recognize same-sex partnerships, provide government-sponsored child care, and take steps to ensure every woman was employed outside the home.

"My message was different," Wilkins later wrote. "The basic structure of society, I asserted 'is built upon the fundamental values fostered by strong families.'"

Wilkins said the reaction to the speech was remarkable. Some of the preceding speakers hissed at him.

"But most of the delegates in the audience gave me a standing ovation," he wrote. "Indeed, after the speech, I was approached by the ambassador from Saudi Arabia, who embraced me warmly. 'Where have you been?' he asked. Next he asked a very important question, 'What can we do?'"

Conference delegates, largely at the insistence of the heads of the Arab delegations, adopted an agenda that included defining the marital relationship as one between "a husband and a wife."

Afterward, Wilkins launched the World Family Policy Center at BYU to continue his work on international issues affecting the family.

Fellow law professor Lynn Wardle said Wilkins was respected worldwide as a family law expert, evidenced by the many emails sent by legal scholars in the Middle East, Europe and South America following his death.

Wardle said Wilkins was an eloquent speaker who excelled in legal argument and analysis.

"He had a gift," Wardle said. "He wrote the best legal briefs I've ever read."

After law school, Wilkins clerked for a federal circuit judge and then became an assistant to a solicitor general, arguing a half-dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Wardle said.

"He was just barely out of law school. He was brilliant," he said.

Whether on stage or in the classroom, Wilkins held his audience at rapt attention, Wardle said.

"He had dramatic flair. He held his audience when was performing and when he was teaching," he said. "He was also the kind of person who could trudge along on the administrative details. He will be sorely missed."

One of Wilkins' greatest strengths was developing international networks of legal and family scholars to collaborate on issues of mutual interest, Wardle said.

Wilkins presented major papers at conferences in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America, and Scandinavia. He also taught a course on international human rights in Beijing, China, and made presentations to numerous United Nations bodies and commissions.

Wilkins retired from the university in 2009, devoting his full attention to The Doha (Qatar) International Institute for Family Studies and Development, where he was the managing director.

Susan Roylance, who worked extensively with Wilkins on international issues regarding the family, said he had a distinctive, joyous laugh.

"If you were in the mall and Richard was in the mall and you heard that laugh, you'd know it was Richard," she said. "It was a laugh that was full of joy. It just bellowed out."

But Roylance said Wilkins' lasting legacy is his work to influence international policy regarding the natural family. As a respected law professor, Wilkins' involvement "gave additional credibility to what we were trying to do," she said.

Roylance recalled that Wilkins arrived late at the Istanbul conference that launched his interest in international family issues.

"When he signed in, I personally felt the angels in heaven rejoiced," she said. "It was an amazing experience to know he was there."

Wilkins is survived by his wife, Melany Wilkins. They are the parents of four children. Funeral arrangements are pending.