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Discovering Historic Wilmington with Bob Jenkins

In three hours with Bob Jenkins one learns more than could possibly fit here — and probably enough to write a book — about Wilmington. It was once reported in a feature in the New York Times — yes the New York Times — that “Mr. Jenkins’s mind probably holds as much living knowledge of the city as anyone’s.”

Though Jenkins rattles off facts and stories quicker than Google, one can’t help but sense that he’s trying to show you something more. Something deeper.

The 75-year-old man who created and leads the Wilmington Adventure Walking Tour scampers around the streets, ducking down alleys and punching codes into buildings’ electronic locks. His pace is frenetic, yet hardly without purpose.

Should you take Jenkins’s tour, before you go tearing around downtown Wilmington’s sidewalks and alleys and buildings, you’ll likely meet him where he meets everyone: at the flagpole at the bottom of Market Street, by the riverfront. Look for the man wearing the straw hat and carrying a walking cane. Tours start at 10 am and cost $10, and Jenkins recommends you to call ahead, (910) 763-1785.

“I always get a Wilmington history lesson,” says a local resident on the tour. “He has a huge fan club. People come to Wilmington just for his tours.”

Over the years, Jenkins has been featured, in addition to the Times piece, in Southern Living and Our State magazines. In 2009 the North Carolina Travel Industry Association (NCTIA) awarded him the prestigious Charles J. Parker Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions made by individuals to the state’s tourism industry.

“Bob Jenkins is a tourism hero,” says Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority and president-elect of the NCTIA. She also describes him as a “master storyteller” who “goes above and beyond the call of duty.”

Jenkins, remarkably, has no website, though as it turns out, an Internet search still shows quite a bit posted about him. Perhaps even more remarkable is that everyone who wrote something about him also remembered something amazing he showed them … and every single memory was different.

So how does one man know so much?

It began when Jenkins, who was born in Sneads Ferry, was a boy in the 1940s, growing up amidst a vibrant Wilmington downtown that swarmed with soldiers and sailors in the throes of World War II. As life took him different places for various reasons, Jenkins lived all over the country and world, residing in areas like Washington, D.C., Florida, Colorado and in Europe and Africa. He’s seen much of the world’s beauty.

Yet, “I never thought of giving up North Carolina,” Jenkins says. “Wilmington … has a rich blend of cultures from all over the world. Its diversity and freedom of religion and faith, and the architecture in Wilmington, is representative of the greatest in the entire nation.”

In the 1960s Jenkins moved downtown to open a new interior design office, above which he rented an apartment. “Once you live down here, you really start caring about what happens 24 hours a day,” Jenkins says. He helped form the Historic Wilmington Foundation in 1966 and began fighting for the preservation of various historical buildings and beautiful Victorian homes that people wanted to destroy in the name of progress and growth.

When a friend created a water taxi services to ferry folks across the Cape Fear River to and from the Battleship North Carolina, tourists began stopping by Jenkins’s store to ask questions. Jenkins thoroughly educated himself so he could better respond and began giving the occasional tour, furthering the preservationists’ efforts.

Jenkins recalls: “We said, ‘If we can get our senior citizens back walking downtown then we’ll get young couples like yourself, plus if we can teach our schoolchildren the value of what we have left, then we can preserve our history.’”

Jenkins makes a little money off his tours, but it’s never been about that. “Our whole point,” he explains, “is not to create just an entertainment, a Disneyworld — which is wonderful — but our whole point is to keep things as authentically ‘Wilmington’ as possible and teach the significance of our history. For instance, the horse-drawn trolley is not just an economic thing. We got him to come here to re-enact our public horse-drawn carriage transportation system. He teaches about Wilmington. It’s not bringing Disneyworld here just to make money. Our whole focus is on what we have left … which is unusual.”

It exasperates Jenkins to recall the array of historical buildings and homes that have been decimated. Some remain, but not as many as there once were. The preservationists couldn’t save them all. Often along the tour, usually while rapping his cane against a 200-year-old, cast-iron section of wall or while pointing out old doors that have been turned sideways and converted into bars, Jenkins launches into his mantra: “One,” he says, “don’t tear anything down. Two, maintain the character of what’s here. And, three, use it, but use it creatively.”

Of course, there are those who chuckle at the small, hyper, 75-year-old man zipping around, chased by a journalist/ photographer who’s scribbling like mad and trying to snap pictures. But there are also many who look upon Jenkins with admiration, such as Thurman Burgess, owner of the riverfront houseboat bed-and-breakfast named Jubilee Snooze & Cruise. “You have the best teacher in town,” he says.

Passion does a great teacher make, and Jenkins has passion aplenty.

As you scuttle about with Jenkins, you don’t so much learn as you discover. As his pupils’ discoveries become apparent, Jenkins’s face always alights.

“See, you don’t notice all this!” he exclaims. “But you feel it.”

And maybe that’s the kicker for the whole thing, behind the 25 years of tours. Jenkins knows that many tourists, and even some residents, sense that there’s just something about Wilmington. He helps them understand that sense.

“We have things here in Wilmington that are nowhere else in North Carolina …We have a uniqueness that other places do not have,” Jenkins says. “We really do.”

Meanwhile, the fight rages on to preserve Wilmington’s roots. Jenkins quit displaying his Walking Tour sign at the flagpole because the city said that if he wanted it, he should take out $1 million in insurance. “To run me out of here,” he says. “But I don’t need a sign.”

He strolls on, with his light step and quick gait and swinging cane, treading along downtown Wilmington to remind it and others what it means. Thus, just maybe, the powers that be will remember what it is to feel Wilmington before destroying its history to make room for new parking decks or apartment complexes or shopping centers.

Don’t tear it down. Maintain its character. Use it, but creatively.

Hufham was right: Jenkins is indeed a master storyteller. For we remember stories not so much for their content but for the feeling with which they left us. This is how Jenkins connects you with Wilmington: not because of what you learn — though you will learn abundantly — but because, as he helps you explore this city that makes you feel, you come to see why you feel the way you do. For this, Jenkins persists, for in such discovery, history will remain respected.

It’s no easy trick, but like his beloved Wilmington, Jenkins has a uniqueness that other people do not have.

He really does.

Wilmington Adventure Walking Tour (910) 763-1785.

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