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Ann J. Wilkerson, early childhood education teacher and butterfly whisperer, dies at 79

Mrs. Wilkerson’s special gift was that she knew how to be still and quiet in the presence of a butterfly. Her husband called her the butterfly whisperer.

Ann Jones Wilkerson
Ann Jones WilkersonRead moreCourtesy of the Wilkerson Family

Ann Jones Wilkerson, 79, of Philadelphia, an early childhood education teacher and friend to the butterfly, died Wednesday, Sept. 9, of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at her Center City home.

Mrs. Wilkerson lived in a rowhouse with a tiny backyard, but that didn’t keep her from interacting with butterflies, said her husband, L. Douglas Wilkerson.

Farmers and flower growers throughout the Philadelphia area knew she loved monarch butterflies. Late in August, at the start of the monarch fourth-generation migration, they would bring her milkweed branches with butterfly eggs attached.

She put the fragile cargo in a fishbowl at home covered with a screen and provided leafy milkweed, the developing monarch’s only food.

Then the wait began. A month or so later, the egg turned into a caterpillar, the caterpillar to a chrysalis, and the chrysalis broke open to reveal a butterfly.

“When the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it’s not ready to go at that point,” said her husband. “Its wings are wet. It’s very, very hungry and needs to flatten out the wings until they dry."

Mrs. Wilkerson watched carefully. When the butterfly was strong enough to leave for its winter habitat in Mexico, she removed the screen from the bowl after taking it outdoors. Some flew off immediately, but others lingered in her backyard to sip nectar from the season’s fading flowers.

“I thought, ‘Come on, guy, get going,’" her husband said. "I had the sense more than once that the butterfly was hanging around, saying goodbye.”

Mrs. Wilkerson’s special gift, which her husband watched with awe, was that she knew how to be still and quiet in the presence of a butterfly.

“Once she came out the front door, and there was a red admiral butterfly sitting on the flower box near the front door. He was not in any hurry to go away,” her husband said.

“She told the butterfly, ‘I’ll be back in 10 minutes.’ Ten minutes later, she came back out and the butterfly landed on the rail of the steps. They just sat there together.”

While Mrs. Wilkerson’s favorite avocation was watching and nurturing butterflies, her vocation was teaching and nurturing young children. Born in LeRoy, Ill., to Frank and Janet Jones, she studied piano from an early age and played the organ at church and the piano at school.

But after she was persuaded by her parents to study “something practical” at the University of Illinois and later in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, she chose early child development as a career, the family said in a statement.

She taught in the original Head Start program in Chicago and then in the Lab School of the University of Chicago. Her longest assignment, though, was as a kindergarten teacher at St. Peter’s School in Society Hill.

The job allowed her to form friendships with the families of students, sometimes over two generations.

“Ann had the unusual experience of a lifelong correspondence with parents of one preschool student, and then the satisfaction of seeing her own daughter, Sarah, become a teacher to this former student’s child in another city,” her husband said.

Mrs. Wilkerson’s circle of friends grew through school, neighborhood, and church acquaintances, as well as shared interests such as knitting and reading.

She married John Davies. They had two children before divorcing. He survives.

In 1986, she married Wilkerson, a pediatric neurologist at Main Line Health.

Besides her husband, she is survived by children Sarah Davies Kim and Daniel Davies; stepsons Jonathan and David Wilkerson; four grandchildren; and two nephews. A sister died earlier.

Burial services and interment were held Saturday, Sept. 12, at Christ Church in Philadelphia. Plans for a celebration of life next year are pending.

Memorial donations may be made to the Settlement Music School or to the Christ Church Preservation Fund