Wilgus leaves lasting legacy at THS

May. 20, 2014 @ 11:01 AM

When Sgt. Robert Wilgus first stepped foot on the campus of Thomasville High School in 1993, he had trouble finding enough students to fill his brand new JROTC program.
More than two decades later, with the program bursting at the seams, Wilgus is ready to hand over the reigns.
He is retiring at the end of the school year, ending a military career that started when a 19-year-old young man from New York joined the Army in 1971.
“The program has flourished,” Wilgus said. “I've seen a lot of cadets come and go. I'm just happy that I had a chance to contribute to their education and knowledge about the military.”
Affectionately known as “Sarge” on the THS campus, Wilgus' legacy lives on through the thousands of cadets who came through a program he created. There was no JROTC program in Thomasville before Wilgus, who came to the Chair City with nothing but a game plan and a desire to teach.
As his active military career started winding down, Wilgus, a flight instructor at Fort Rucker in Alabama, decided he wanted to remain in teaching and started exploring the ROTC program. Wilgus became a certified instructor, but needed a place to apply his new craft.
Serendipity landed him in Thomasville.
“Once I became a certified instructor, it was up to me to find a job at a school,” said Wilgus. “ A friend of mine in North Carolina gave me the name of the principal at THS. I called, set up an appointment and the rest is history.”
Establishing the program took time.
“Back in the early days, we had problems finding students to take ROTC,” Wilgus said. “Mostly because of Desert Storm. They didn't want to be obligated to any military service.”
Wilgus' dedication to JROTC never wavered. The program steadily grew over the next decade, increasing its numbers from a dozen or so cadets to 100.
When Lt. Col. Bob Merkel came aboard five years ago, the program soared.
“We used to have about 55 candidates a year,” said THS Principal Deboy Beamon. “We now average around 180, 190 a year. I can't say enough about how they create a family atmosphere for the kids. We have two kids [at THS] who are both going to the Army. One is getting $13,000, the other is getting $60,000. They were instrumental in that.”
Wilgus credits Merkel for the exponential growth of the program.
“He's done a tremendous job with the program,” Wilgus said. “I feel confident that I'm leaving the program in good hands.”
According to Merkel's math, more than 3,500 cadets have come through the JROTC program at THS since its inception. Combine that with 22 years of active service that included tours of duty in Vietnam, Korea and South and Central America, and Wilgus' career is nothing short of remarkable, Merkel said.
“He's a close friend and a great teaching partner,” said Merkel. “He's a great educator who loves these kids, and they love him, too.”
While Sgt. Kenneth Dawson is coming to THS to fill Wilgus' position, filling his shoes will not be easy.
“Those are pretty big boots to fill,” Merkel said. “He's a pretty amazing guy and I've learned a lot from him.”
Wilgus plans to stay in contact with the program through social media and will visit the school from time to time. He intends to spend the next few years getting ready to move to Lawrenceville, Ga., with his wife of 38 years, Kim.
His cadets never will be far from his mind.
“I'm going to miss the kids,” said Wilgus. “Many of my cadets have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm going to miss the camaraderie with Col. Merkel and I'm going to miss being with the great administration at Thomasville High School.”

Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or duke@tvilletimes.com.