Decorations in Jane Wilkins’ office say it all.
An American flag built from baseball bats hangs above her desk. Autographed home plates commemorating championship teams decorate a wall. A side table displays autographed footballs. Jerseys hung here and photos posted there recall teams and players who have graced ball fields at Chastain Park.
Wilkins is executive director of the Northside Youth Organization. Her office sits in a building in the center of Chastain’s ball fields, where thousands of boys and girls from Buckhead, Sandy Springs and other metro Atlanta communities have learned about sports and competition through the teams of the Northside Youth Organization. Some NYO players have gone on to play for local high schools, for colleges, for teams in the major leagues or NFL.
“There’s not a [youth sports] program anywhere like this,” Wilkins said proudly as she sat at her desk one recent morning and fielded a steady stream of questions from volunteers who were working on NYO leagues and teams.
Wilkins, who’s 75, plans to retire at the end of this season, so in March, NYO added a new honor to the resume of the gregarious woman everyone seems to know simply as “Miss Jane.” The manicured baseball field just up the hill from Wilkins’ office, the premier field, now bears her name. A new scoreboard marking “Jane Wilkins Bronco Field” was unveiled during NYO’s opening day ceremonies. “It’s my field,” she said with a grin.
Wilkins says the NYO sports program, which turns 67 this fall, now includes about 5,000 participants in five sports – baseball, football, softball, boys’ and girls’ basketball and cheerleading – and has become the largest and oldest multi-league sports program in the South.
She’s quick to credit others with the growth of the program that started with football for middle-school-aged boys. “We have two commissioners who have been with us more than 20 years,” she said. “The success has been the board and commissioners and ladies’ auxiliary. The children are our stars. That’s the special part.”
But parents who gathered to honor Wilkins in March were quick to give her a share of the credit. “She’s just the best,” parent Alan Roos said as volunteers wearing red “Jane Wilkins Opening Day” T-shirts laid out small squares of cake to celebrate Wilkins’ final season. “This is her family,” Roos said. “It’s always been her family. What makes Miss Jane special is she treats everybody like family. Her office door is always open.”
Wilkins has worked for the organization for 40 years – “five years as a volunteer, 35 of them paid,” she said. In the beginning, she worked out of her home, she said. NYO papers covered her dining room table back then. Over the years, she’s done a little bit of everything for NYO: put together yearbooks, raised money, headed the ladies’ auxiliary.
“I was just a sucker for it. I loved every minute,” she said.
“And I just kind of worked up the ladder.”
It paid off. “She’s held this whole thing together through thick and thin – and there have been some thin years. She’s been a constant source of strength,” said Geoff Anderson, who said he’d coached NYO teams for 16 years. She’s just class,” Anderson said. “A real sort of Southern finesse. She can say difficult things without making it sound rude or bad. It’s a real gift. She’s always got a smile.”
Wilkins said the best thing about her job at NYO involved people she got to know.She’s watched three generations in some families take the field. “The friendships I’ve made, that’s the great part,” she said. “I’m going to a wedding next month of a child who played here. I’ve known her since she was itty-bitty.”
Wilkins hopes to stay “somewhat active” at NYO after retirement. “What do they say? ‘Close a door and open a window?’ Maybe that’s what will happen. It’s all good. Whatever it is, it is.”
She said she’s been named an emeritus member of the organization’s board. “I’ll get to keep my finger in the pie, if you will,” she said. Besides, she said, she likes to work the scoreboard on the field that now bears her name.
“I don’t want to stay too long…,” she said. “It’s bittersweet. I’d like to come and visit and hug the children and do the parts I love. It is time to turn it over … As they say in sports, ‘It’s been a great run.’”