Wilbur Athey: Collegiate’s Unsung Hero

Since a very young age, Wilbur Athey has been putting others’ needs before his own. Many students at Collegiate may not even know who Mr. Athey is, but without him, many of the most important events that are enjoyed at Collegiate would not even be possible.

Athey grew up in Goochland County as the oldest of ten brothers and sisters. When he turned eight, he made the first selfless decision of many. “I moved in with my grandparents at the age of eight… to help them with whatever they needed and free up space for my siblings at my parents’ house.”

He did everything he could to make life easier for his family, including working for his dad’s pulpwood cutting business and his grandfather’s tobacco business. As soon as he became a teenager, Athey received his work permit and worked for the Goochland County school system, helping move furniture so that they could wax the floors.

Athey stayed busy in his youth, taking care of his grandparents and working to help support his family, but when he did have down time, he explored his true passion. “I had big dreams on what I wanted to do in life, and that was to become a basketball player. It was my passion… it was all that I ever wanted. Every chance I got I was out on my makeshift court until dark.”

In his freshman year of high school, Athey got cut from his JV basketball team. “I got cut not because I wasn’t good enough, but [because of] favoritism with the other players and coaches, but I didn’t let that crush my dream.” Athey tried out for the local travel team and played very well, catching the attention of the coach that had cut him from the team. When he offered Athey a spot on the JV team, Athey replied “I wasn’t good enough to make the team at tryout, so I’m not good enough to be on your team now.” It was after this experience that Athey decided that he wanted to be a basketball coach, and in doing so, he “would give every kid a fair shot at their dream of playing basketball.”

Athey’s dream of playing basketball, however, took a hit in his senior year of high school, as he once again put the needs of those around him before his own. “My grandfather became really ill, so I spent most of my senior year taking care of him in the evenings after school.”

Getting married at a young age, Athey raised his son and daughter and landed a construction job in 1980. In 1982, however, pure coincidence and good fortune brought him to Collegiate. His brother-in-law got a call that there was a bad water leak on campus when he happened to be at Athey’s house. Athey decided to help out his brother-in-law, so he rode to Collegiate with him and once they got there, he “jumped right in, grabbed a water vacuum and started working, and here I am 34 years later, still working at Collegiate.”

Athey has worked hard to reach the position he holds today: Special Events and Projects Supervisor. Basically, without Athey, all of the important events at Collegiate would not be possible. “Office and classroom moves, making sure the mail is picked up from the post office daily, overseeing the events calendar, tables, chairs, and tent rentals all fall under my umbrella.” When talking about only graduations, Athey estimated that he has set up and taken down over 200,000 chairs and 196 stages.

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Athey’s basketball memorabilia. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Athey.

Athey, unsurprisingly, did not give up on his promise to himself to be a coach. When his son was a student at Goochland Middle School, Athey took the job as middle school head coach. “They needed a coach, or they were going to do away with the basketball program, so I took the job because I wasn’t going to let them do that to the kids.” On top of coaching the middle school team, Athey simultaneously coached the local parks and recreation team. Many years later, he accepted the head JV job at Goochland High School, where he coached for three years. Finally, Athey decided it was time to give up coaching after 25 years. “The traveling back and forth became unbearable. Thought I had ran my race, met my goals, and accomplished my dreams, so I retired from coaching.”

Collegiate’s very own varsity boys’ basketball head coach (and Upper School Counselor) Alex Peavey heard about Athey’s retirement from coaching and, on the spot, offered him a spot on the Collegiate coaching staff, which Athey joyously accepted. “So here I am once again living my dream and loving every minute of it!”

Wilbur Athey has accomplished incredible things throughout his life. From working hard at a young age, moving in to help his grandparents, and putting others ahead of his own dreams to making sure that all kids get the opportunity that he was denied, Athey has not taken anything for granted his whole life. When I asked him why he had stayed at Collegiate for 34 years, the answer was rather simple. “Collegiate is a great place to work… the parents here are amazing, the students here… I have never seen anything like it. They are truly a family. That’s what kept me here, and I enjoy every minute of it. It’s my home away from home.”

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Chatting with Athey in Estes Cafe. Photo credit: Stacy Adams.

When I asked Upper School Associate Director of Student Life Missy Herod about Athey, she had no shortage of things to say. “Wilbur is Collegiate. He loves our school with all his heart… He knows what I need before I even ask and can trouble shoot better than anyone I know… I love this man, and he knows if he ever needs me for anything, I’d be there for him before he could blink.” Wilbur Athey is truly one of the unsung heroes that make this school function the way it does. So if you pass by him around school, make sure to say thank you. Not just for setting up the events or delivering the mail, but for being the perpetually selfless man that everyone should strive to be.

About the author

I am a senior at Collegiate, and I play basketball and baseball. Passionate sports fan who loves cheering for the worst teams.