With raconteur driving instructor 'Mr. Wigs,' the journey counts as much as the destination

City Paper

Mr. Wigs is a man in motion. Few know the streets of North Baltimore better. Like Mark Twain piloting his steamer down the Mississippi, he is attuned to all the bends in the road, knows every hidden driveway and lurking pothole. He is out there in his Ford Focus six days a week, hour upon hour, year after year. But rarely behind the wheel.

“Watch out, now,” he tells the 16-year-old maneuvering two tons of metal and plastic outside the Giant on 41st Street in Hampden. The tone is gentle but commanding as he points out the many hazards to navigate: careless pedestrians, cars backing up, idiots on cellphones.

Patrick M. Wiglesworth Sr.—Mr. Wigs to one and all—is an institution among the learner’s permit set. For 20 years, many thousands of nervous adults have entrusted him with their kids’ lives, for good reason. The vast majority pass their driving test on the first try; he guesses 90 percent, down a bit from when the test was on a prepared course instead of real streets.

But that isn’t what makes Pat Wiglesworth “Mr. Wigs.” In his car and his classroom, you don’t just get instruction in how to do a perfect reverse turnabout. You get the stories. You get him.

“He’s kind of iconic,” Kayli Balin, a Towson High junior, says from behind the wheel of the lime-green Focus on a recent Saturday in the lot behind Dumbarton Middle School. “He makes driver’s ed, which is probably the most boring thing ever, not as boring,” she adds as Mr. Wigs braves the early February chill, arranging cones the same bright orange as his Orioles cap.

His tales, delivered in the classroom at Roland Park Driving School or from the passenger seat, pour forth in a steady stream. Sometimes they come in snippets: A blurb on the radio about Whitney Houston’s daughter reminds him of seeing the singer perform around 30 years ago at Merriweather Post Pavilion in a torrential downpour. “I got up close to the stage, waved to her and caught her eye . . . she looked right at me and said, ‘You’re No. 1.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Other times, his shaggy-dog stories meander unhurriedly to their conclusion. No surprise, many of these yarns feature cars and driving. One favorite anecdote recalls a trip with some buddies to catch Jimmy Buffett in Hampton Roads, when a cop stopped him for failing to pay a toll at one of those old-fashioned tollbooths where you flip the coins into a basket. He dropped a quarter in, but it was too late: “I went over the sensor line. Lights start flashing, alarms go off . . . this Virginia state trooper takes off after me. He gets out of the car and starts walking up to me.

“I don’t like to make fun of anyone, but he must’ve been sitting in the office for 10 years—he was waddling along. Well, it was windy and it blew the hat off his head. He had a tough time bending down to grab it, and he finally stepped on it. The thing was flatter than a pancake.

“Tears were rolling down our cheeks. He says, ‘Boy, this here’s a crime, this is a serious thing. What you laughing at, boy?’ And I said, ‘Sir, you’re the funniest-looking cop I’ve ever seen.’” This did not improve the officer’s mood, and soon Mr. Wigs’ hands were on the hood. Desperate measures were called for, and he found himself saying, “How about I give you a dollar and we call it even?” Amazingly, the bribe worked, but this perhaps led him to press his luck; he then asked the cop if he’d mind driving them to the Buffett show in the cruiser, because they were going to be late. This was also when he realized that instead of $1, he had given the officer a $100 bill—all their money for concert tickets.

“He cursed and said, ‘I’m gonna follow you to the concert and if you’re one mile over the limit I’m gonna arrest you.’” He threatened to wait for them and bust them for pot or alcohol after the show. In the end, they avoided arrest, somehow talked the cop into giving them their money back, and didn’t even arrive late.

Then there was the time in the early ’70s when he tooled around Europe and North Africa with some friends in a VW microbus, visiting 14 countries and watching Formula One races. At one point they picked up “three beautiful California girls” who wanted a ride to Rome. One of the girls, he said, “had pot in her hair rolled up in a bun” and almost got everyone busted at a border crossing. Mr. Wigs and his friends weren’t into that—they dumped the girls by the side of the road.

Even a VW bus, it seems, couldn’t bring out the hippie in Mr. Wigs. More of a jock growing up, he played varsity basketball, football, and lacrosse for Calvert Hall, and still looks the part: a clean-cut, hale 71-year-old who could easily be taken for 15 years younger. Hanging out with teens helps keep him youthful. 

Mr. Wigs’ work history reveals a restless soul. He came to driving instruction late, after a variety of jobs that usually involved interacting with the public in some way—newspaper circulation, owning a gas station, distributing Pepsi products.

Probably the most fun he had was working for the Orioles part time in ticketing at both Camden Yards and the old Memorial Stadium. “I loved it. After four innings, I got to watch every game.” Still a baseball fanatic, Mr. Wigs has been known to interrupt his driver’s ed lessons by calling out, “What’s the score?”

Despite his characteristically light tone, Mr. Wigs gets serious in a hurry when he contemplates the meaning of his work: helping to keep young people alive, just as he did as an Ocean City lifeguard a half-century ago. He recalls how, in 2005, there was a rash of teen road deaths, and the law was changed to require six months between learner’s permit and license and 60 hours of driving practice.

And there’s melancholy behind the ruddy complexion and perpetual smile. A harshness slips into his banter when the subject turns to his oldest son, Patrick Jr., who died in 2007 at age 42. “I lost him to the damn cancer,” he says, then recalls how over 2,000 people attended a fundraiser at the Timonium Fairgrounds for Patrick, a popular bartender. Then-Mayor Martin O’Malley—like so many others, a Wigs acquaintance—took a break from campaigning for governor to sing a few songs.

Back in the Focus, Mr. Wigs is winding things down with Kayli, his fourth student this Saturday, who is getting ready to take her test in a few days. Alt rock by Jib Kidder pulses from the radio, tuned to WTMD. Earlier it was country on WPOC, and before that WWMX. He’ll listen to whatever puts a teenager in her comfort zone.

“I like everything,” Mr. Wigs says, flashing that trademark grin, before launching into his next story. 

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