Caroline Wilkins was born in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1937, and grew up in a farming area on the outskirts of town. As a small child during the Second World War, she attended a local boarding school, and was exposed to politics at an early age through her parents’ involvement as local precinct committee workers. In high school, she was editor of the school newspaper, and excelled academically, graduating with honors.
After graduating, Wilkins briefly worked in business services, and then attended Del Mar College for one term before transferring to the Texas College of Arts & Industry (Texas A&I), where she found work in a bookstore and at The South Texan student newspaper. Through her involvement with The South Texan, she met Bill Wilkins, a fellow student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business. They married in college, and Caroline transferred to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, when Bill accepted a job teaching economics there. Before she transferred to Texas Tech, Wilkins ran several campaigns for students running for Texas A&I student body president.
Wilkins spent one year at Texas Tech and then transferred to the University of Texas - Austin, where she finished her degree in English in 1961. During this time, she worked as a legislative assistant for three different Texas legislators. Also in 1961, Bill finished his Ph.D, after which the couple moved to Corvallis, Oregon where Bill had been hired to the Economics Department at Oregon State University. Two years after arriving at OSU, they spent a year in Mexico at the University of the Americas. While there, Caroline finished her master’s degree in Latin American history, and in 1967, was hired as an instructor in the History Department at Oregon State University. She is believed to be the first woman to teach history at OSU in modern times.
In 1964 Wilkins became involved in the Benton County Democratic Party. Between 1966 and 1970, she served successively as Vice Chair and Chair of the Oregon First Congressional District. From 1968 to 1969, she was the Vice Chair of the Oregon Democratic Party, and became Chair in 1969, serving in that position until 1974. During this time, she helped organize Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign visits to Oregon in 1968. From 1972-1977 she served as Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee. She, along with C. Delores Tucker and Rilla Moran Woods, were instrumental in getting the National Federation of Democratic Women recognized by the DNC in 1972.
Outside of politics, Wilkins worked as an administrator of the Oregon Consumer Services Division from 1977 to 1981, and served on the Pacific Fishery Management Council Salmon Advisory subpanel from 1982 to 1986. She also founded a consulting firm, Wilkins Associates, in 1981, which she ran until 2012. Wilkins has also been an active supporter of the OSU Libraries and Corvallis-Benton County Library, and was involved with the campaign to expand the Valley Library in the mid- to late 1990s.