If you’ve ever been to Center Court you’ve probably seen Evelyn Wilkerson manning the cash register, but what you might not know is she’s crisscrossed this country many times over.
“I was born here in Peoria but lived all over; Texas, North Carolina, California and a whole bunch of other places,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson started traveling around the country at a very young age because of her father.
“My father was always something of a gypsy and I guess so am I,” Wilkerson said. “In fifth grade, I went to five different schools in four different states. When I got older, I married a military man, so I was moving around a lot because of that. Then I started moving around on my own. I don’t like to sit still too long; I’m hyper.”
Wilkerson said her travels opened her up to meeting different kinds of people and experiencing new things.
“Back during the Vietnam War, my husband at the time and I picked up two hitchhikers,” Wilkerson said. “In the 70s everybody picked up everybody. Anyways, one of the hitchhikers played the harmonica, one of them played the guitar and I played the guitar, too, so we just had a ball as [we] drove across the country.”
Before Wilkerson moved back to Peoria, she lived in northern California and worked as a bartender.
“I’ve been bartending since I was 20, and heaven knows that was a long time ago,” Wilkerson. “I liked the work well enough, you get to hear people’s stories and sometimes you find yourself in funny situations.”
Wilkerson recalled one such situation involving a belligerent drunk.
“He was this little bitty short guy, and he started getting up into my face really bad; so I had to escort him out of the bar,” Wilkerson said. “The guy then stumbled around for a bit until he ended up at the back door of the bar, but he was so drunk that he thought he was at a new bar. So when he entered and I started yelling at him again, he asked me, his face all astonished, ‘You work here too?’”
Although she enjoyed her time as a bartender and a traveler, Wilkerson said she loves her job at Bradley, mostly because of the time she gets to spend with the students.
“If they fired me, I couldn’t leave because I just love you kids so much,” Wilkerson said. “My grandkids are all over on the west coast, but I get to take you kids here under my wing. Some of the kids call me ‘ma’ or stuff like that. I’ll yell at them sometimes and they’ll say ‘Yeah, I deserved that, sorry,’ and then they’ll come in and bring me little gifts.”
Despite her motherly role, Wilkerson said she tries to refrain from giving advice.
“I don’t think my life turned out so good, so who am I to give advice?” Wilkerson said. “Everything has changed so much, so anything I would suggest probably wouldn’t match up with what’s going on with the world today. I mean, nowadays you don’t even want to hitchhike across the street, let alone the whole country.”
Wilkerson said the only advice she has to offer is to get to know people before you judge them, because they might surprise you, and not to get bogged down in Peoria.
“I’ve talked to people from Peoria who never left and I just can’t imagine doing that,” Wilkerson said. “There are so many different types of people to meet and so many different sceneries to see. America is a very gorgeous country, but people don’t take advantage of that. The other day, I was talking to some folks and they said, ‘Heck, I just went over to Pekin last week,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, I bet that was fun for you.’”
Despite this, Wilkerson said she doesn’t see herself leaving Peoria again.
“I’m at the age now where I’m just too tired to move again,” Wilkerson said. “ If I were to move I’d like to move to Washington state or Oregon. I went over there last summer and I just fell in love. I thought California was beautiful, but up there it’s just magnificent. Plus, my grandkids and great grandkids live there. But I’m pretty well sure that Peoria is where I’m going to stay forever.”