Ernest L. Wilkinson

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Ernest L. Wilkinson is best known for his long tenure as president of Brigham Young University. He also practiced law in Washington, DC, and New York.

Wilkinson was born in Ogden, Utah, on May 4, 1899, and grew up in an area known as Hell’s Half Acre, where bootlegging, cockfighting, and other illegal activities were common. He credits his mother for lifting him past his rough childhood and setting his feet on the road of education. He attended Weber Stake Academy where he was student body president and class valedictorian. In 1918 he entered BYU with the Student Army Training Corps but was stricken with the flu that swept the nation. In 1919 he enrolled as a student at BYU, graduated in 1921, and began a career teaching English.

He then attended George Washington University and graduated summa cum laude from law school. He then received a Doctor of Juridical Science from Harvard Law School. He taught law for a few years at the University of California and New Jersey Law School. He then joined a New York law firm and later opened a private practice in Washington, DC.

Wilkinson served as an attorney for the Ute Indian Tribes in their lawsuit to be compensated for land that they were never paid for according to the Treaty of 1880. The US Court of Claims upheld the decision and the tribes were awarded $32 million. Wilkinson’s share of the settlement left him wealthy.

Some biographies claim that Wilkinson sought after the position of president of BYU.[1], a position he was invited to fill in 1951. He saw this position as an opportunity to serve and refused salary for thirteen years. During his administration, the student body grew from 4,000 to 25,000 enrolled students and expanded from predominantly Utah students to a student body from almost every state in the nation. Campus buildings grew from six to 77 permanent and 82 temporary; full-time faculty rose from 244 to 900; five colleges grew to 13; and 37 academic departments expanded to 71. He considered his greatest achievement to be the establishment of campus Latter-day Saint wards and stakes. He resigned in 1971.

During his service he was also the ninth Commissioner of Church Education for the Church of Jesus Christ.

Wilkinson had long been interested in politics and asked president David O. McKay for permission to run for public office. In 1964 he was granted one year leave of absence to run for the senate. He won the Republican Party nomination but lost the general election.

Wilkinson and his wife, Alice, were the parents of five children. He died in Salt Lake City on April 6, 1978.