Recently in a casual conversation about the history of Lansing with a longtime resident, he made several references to a sister who died long ago and it seemed like he assumed I knew her story, even though I’d only just met him. Finally, I asked about the sister he had mentioned and how she died. My mouth just dropped when I heard his reply. He asked if I had heard of Richard Speck. I, of course, had and I’m sure most people have. His sister, he said, was one of Speck’s eight victims, all student nurses killed by him in the townhouse they resided in near the Chicago hospital they were training at in 1966.
I wasn’t even alive at the time, but the criminal’s name is one that even those of that generation recognize. However, most people might not know the names of any of those eight victims. So, I asked John Wilkening if he’d like to tell me about his sister and I’d write about her. Then, maybe people would remember her, rather than him.
Those who were living in Lansing at the time will recall all the details. Some probably knew Pamela Wilkening. For those who didn’t, she grew up in Lansing, attending Indiana Avenue School, Memorial Junior High and Thornton Fractional South High School, where he said she was a member of the Nurse’s Club and a good student.
“The last time I saw her I was running to Wisconsin and took her home and they were undergoing the preparations for the state board exams for nurses, so she was staying at the townhouse,” said her brother. “She called up the night before, early on 13th. She was talking to my mom I could hear them downstairs.”
According to her brother, she was just about to graduate from the nursing program at South Chicago Community Hospital. She died on July 14. Her birthday was Aug. 2. She would have been 21. “Maybe a week or two later was her graduation date,” said her brother, John. “We went to McCormick Place and my father accepted her diploma.”
“She was busy in Girls Scouts and the whole works here in Lansing,” he said of his only sibling. As the older brother, he missed a good chunk of her growing up when he left to serve in the military from 1957 to 1961. “I was away for the four years, so there was a big change,” he said. “She went from a very young teenager to when I got out she was a junior in school, so that was a big span. There was a lot of growing up going on.”
Pam’s brother, who still lives in town, was race car driving in those days and he said she liked coming to watch him race in Wisconsin. He said she didn’t seem to worry and just enjoyed being there to see her big brother. “I didn’t get in any tangle-ups. We used to joke that I’d keep it between the ditches.”
It wasn’t until three years after her death that he married. “My kids and my grandkids — it’s a shame they didn’t get to know her. I think about her all the time. It’s something you have to learn to live with.” Pam would be 67 now.