Back in his hometown dressed in a clergyman's robe, Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV was in a familiar setting, preaching the word of God in front of an estimated 360 people inside Pine Bluff's Amos Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
Furloughed from a yearlong sentence in federal prison for bribery, the 68-year-old former Jefferson County judge and state legislator delivered the eulogy at his wife Phyllis' funeral Saturday. Phyllis Wilkins, a well-known church first lady revered for her career in social work, died May 12 at age 64. The cause of her death was not disclosed.
"This is the hardest thing I ever had to do," Wilkins said, overcome by emotion at times over the passing of his wife of 46 years. "I know God has a divine plan. We don't always know what's going to do, where God is taking things or why God makes a decision to bring someone home."
Battling numerous health setbacks in recent years, Wilkins revealed that he thought he would die before Phyllis, by his description a "healthy and energetic woman." Wilkins has suffered two heart attacks, a staph infection and spinal surgery, and he's undergone cancer and knee surgeries and had a blood clot removed, he told congregants. He also revealed that he was one of three survivors of having been given tainted heparin, an anticoagulant used to treat heart attacks, while in a Detroit hospital, and he defied a doctor's prediction that he wouldn't survive the night.
"I'm not supposed to be here, so I know God has a plan," he said.
The service lasted 2½ hours, and as funeral organizers tried to keep the program moving quickly, Wilkins acknowledged his own time constraint to the public.
"Speaking of time, I've got to get to the big house," Wilkins said. "I wasn't even supposed to be here."
Wilkins has been imprisoned in Marion, Ill., since May 1. His sentence was delayed from March for medical reasons, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
Wilkins pleaded guilty in 2018 to directing legislation to benefit a Missouri-based, Medicaid-funded provider of counseling to troubled patients in Arkansas, but was not sentenced until this past January to one year and one day and ordered to pay $123,000 restitution.
Phyllis was with her sons when they dropped off Wilkins in Illinois, and she died two days before Mother's Day, Wilkins told the congregation.
"They tell me the warden doesn't even believe in furloughs," Wilkins said, sounding the last "s" in a lengthy way. "Well, welcome to God's world."
A former pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, Wilkins served as an Arkansas state representative from 1999-2001 and from 2011-15. He was a state senator from 2001-11 and served as Jefferson County judge from January 2017 to March 2018, one month before entering his guilty plea.
He met then-Phyllis Ann Cannon, a Gould native, while they both attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where Wilkins was a law school student and Phyllis was an undergraduate.
Wilkins, who pastored St. James United Methodist Church in Fayetteville at the time, told how he came to know Phyllis, whom he would marry in 1977.
"I called you to let you know the Lord said we're going to be married," Wilkins recalled telling Phyllis over the phone.
"OK, thanks for calling. Click," Wilkins said she responded, making the congregation laugh. He called back the next night and she eventually responded.
Wilkins spoke from the 127th Psalm, which begins, in the New International Version: "Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain." He recalled the time he met Phyllis' mother in Gould and the mother told him she frowned upon all sorts of bad guys who might negatively influence Phyllis.
Wilkins countered by telling Phyllis' mother of the high honors he earned from the University of Michigan. Phyllis' mother then asked: "When are you going to get a job?"
"All right, God," Wilkins recalled asking. "How are you going to build this house?"
Their household would include two sons, Hank V and Wesley. Wilkins and Phyllis also have a granddaughter, Gracie.
"How God builds His house is to pass it from generation to generation," the reverend preached. "We opened our house to dozens of people. ... The Lord was building our house. We used that as an opportunity to pour into others.
"My house is Hank 5, Wesley and Gracie. I'm not giving up. ... My house is in whom I live."
Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson read a resolution in Phyllis' honor, and Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington proclaimed Saturday Phyllis Ann Wilkins Remembrance Day, drawing a standing ovation. A community choir named after Phyllis, who sang in church, performed as well.
Rodney Slater, a Marianna native who served as U.S. Transportation Secretary during President Bill Clinton's second term in office, recalled how he first met Wilkins while attending Eastern Michigan University and then Phyllis at UA, where he also earned his law degree.
"She was a smart, engaging and beautiful lady from Gould who had ... captured the attention of Hank Wilkins," said Slater, who is married to Wilkins' sister Cassandra. "Hank shared his admiration and Christian upbringing for Phyllis. He shared what the Bible describes as a virtuous woman.
"We know her price is above rubies, and we find comfort in praising her."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the dialogue between the Rev. Hank and Phyllis Wilkins when they first met.