With a name like that, you know he had to be special. And he was. For starters, Robert Wilks was one of those kindhearted souls who each Thanksgiving went out and helped somebody.
Not only would he co-sponsor the annual Feeding Families block party organized by Barbara Devan, owner of Tasties Soul Food restaurants, but Wilks would get in line and serve, too — fried turkey, turkey ham, turkey wings, macaroni and cheese, yams, and more. When it was over, he would help clean up.
But this Thanksgiving, he won’t be there.
The 29-year-old businessman was gunned down Saturday while driving in the 600 block of North 52nd Street in West Philly. He was shot twice in his right side just after 6 p.m. in a Dodge minivan, and crashed into a commercial building. Wilks was taken to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m. Police know no motive and have no suspects.
“Rob was a beacon of hope,” said Saleem Vanderpump, a fashion designer and author of a novel, Fatally Flawless, under the name Saleem Roberts. “He was the everyday guy from the neighborhood who did good.”
“This is a major loss,” he added.
Wilks was best known for the hair enterprise he co-owned with his fiancee, Brianna Johnson, Bee Your Hair Salon & Hair Boutique, in the 600 block of South 52nd Street. Young and successful, they were an “it” couple, admired by many because of their business acumen and commitment to each other. They went from living their version of the American dream to an all-too-common American nightmare.
“She loved that man and that man loved her,” said Jacen Bowman, a makeup artist. “They truly exemplified the meaning of black love.”
Just last week, the couple had returned from Europe, where they toured Paris, London, and Frankfurt. They visited the Eiffel Tower, rode the London Eye ferris wheel, took a boat ride, shopped at Louis Vuitton.
They met five years ago when Wilks was working at Herr Foods, and Johnson was in cosmetology school and planning to open a beauty salon. Once she did, he noticed her habit of buying hair extensions after each customer requested them and suggested that she instead buy the hair in bulk. In effect, the couple became distributors of hair for weaving.
“From there it grew,” Johnson told me. “We grew it together.”
Meanwhile, Wilks was investing in other businesses — Uncut Bar & Hookah Lounge, in the 2000 block of North 22nd Street; CarPlay Detailing, in the 2000 block of North 24th Street; Mr. GoodBed, an online mattress retailer; and residential properties.
“His goal was to become a millionaire, and he wasn’t too far from accomplishing his goal,” said Rodney Strickland, his best friend and the owner of Loyaltee Hair, 700 E. Erie Ave.
“It showed the young kids that you don’t got to sell drugs to be successful,” said Strickland, who also drives a bus for SEPTA. “We had nice cars. We lived in nice places and we had something that people considered in the ‘hood as a trophy, which is a Rolex watch. And we did everything the positive way.”
Asked about his friend’s murder, Strickland said, “It had to be somebody that was jealous or somebody who was looking for a comeup because everybody loved Rob. He was a kid who had come from nothing and [ended up] with all of these businesses.
“He was a hero.”
Wilks’ viewing will be at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Church of Christian Compassion, in the 6000 block of Cedar Avenue, West Philadelphia, followed by a funeral at 11.
But first there’s Thanksgiving to struggle through. On Thursday, Devan will pause the music and activities on the moon bounce to conduct a balloon ceremony in Wilks’ honor around 2 p.m. A life-size cardboard cutout of Wilks will have a place of honor.
“He was an everyday working man from Philadelphia,” Vanderpump said. “He was winning at life.”
Here’s hoping that the example he set of working hard and dreaming big will live on and inspire youngsters who hear about Camaro Rob.