Faith Commentary: Remembering a friend and champion of human rights

On the first day of spring, the Islamic Center of Boise lost John Wilkins who passed away after a long and heroic battle with cancer.

He was born in Queens, N.Y., 68 years ago. After graduating from Brooklyn Tech in 1964, he won a football scholarship to Toledo University where he received a degree in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

It was this education and training that ultimately brought him to Hewlett-Packard in Boise over 25 years ago.

Since living here in Boise, John was involved in many community groups and organizations.

He served as a past president and head of the board of trustees for the Islamic Center of Boise, a trustee for the Black History Museum, a board member for the Interfaith Alliance, and a mentor to young professionals with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion.

John was a collector of African art, a jazz music lover, a gardener and an avid reader with a special love for science fiction. He did not have any children of his own but he considered the members of the Islamic Center of Boise his relatives. His obituary reads that he left behind a nephew named Shamim Huq. I got a chuckle out of this because Shamim, a native of Bangladesh, was his colleague and best friend at Hewlett-Packard. When I asked Shamim about this relationship, he replied that he colloquially called John his uncle as did several other engineers at Hewlett-Packard.

Those are the typical facts that are included in memory of someone. I want to tell you stories about John, the person. He was one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet. He had this wonderful smile that made me feel like he cared about me. I never heard him say a nasty thing about anyone. Yes, he could be concerned about discriminatory or hateful behavior. But, he always sought to find constructive ways to counter negative words or behavior.

There are people one meets in life who “talk the talk and walk the walk.” John was such a man. He lived a life of integrity. If I had to write an epitaph on his gravestone, it would read: “A man of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.”

John had many qualities that made him stand out as a member of our community. I never saw him get angry at anyone. He never let his raw emotions take hold of him. He was a role model in this respect and an inspiration to all of us.

John was also a generous man. He gave a lot of his time, money and energy to the Islamic Center of Boise and its members. He was an eloquent speaker and a masterful writer. He drafted parts of the rules of governance of the Islamic Center of Boise and its constitution, and he continued to revise them until shortly before his death.

John was known for bringing cookies and other treats to whatever group meeting he attended. He was a regular at Pastry Perfection on Glenwood Street. One of his regular selections was the chocolate macaroon cookies. My wife and I looked forward to seeing John at various functions because we knew we would get some of those macaroon cookies.

During Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, he would always bring macaroon cookies to the community dinners we held every Saturday evening. He always made sure to include a special batch for me and my wife. He never failed us. My wife and I reminisced on these happy moments and we decided that we needed to keep his tradition alive by bringing macaroon cookies to the whole community during the upcoming month of Ramadan.

Well, my wife and I happened to be at Pastry Perfection on a recent weekend. One of the staff there told us they had wondered what had happened to John because they had not seen him over the past few months. When we told them he had passed away on March 20 of this year, the employee said “We will miss him. He was the nicest man.”

We lost a close and wonderful friend. The interfaith community lost a faithful fighter for human rights and tolerance. His gentle and caring spirit will be missed by everyone who had the privilege of knowing him or working with him.

Whenever my wife and I bite into a macaroon cookie, we will fondly remember our friend John who brought so much joy to anyone he met.

Contributions in his honor can be made to the Islamic Center of Boise (, the Idaho Black History Museum (, and the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research (