Memorial Service Held for John D. Wilson, Former W&L President
A memorial service was held for former Washington and Lee President John Delane Wilson on Saturday, March 16, in Lee Chapel.
Wilson, the president who led W&L during its transition to coeducation, died on March 2 in Lexington. He was 81.
Wilson served as president from 1983 to 1995. In addition to the University’s historic decision to become a fully coeducational institution in 1984, Wilson’s tenure saw the endowment double, the successful execution of a $147 million capital campaign, the renovation of 15 fraternity houses in what was known as the Fraternity Renaissance, and the opening of the Lenfest Center for the Performing Arts.
“John Wilson’s presidency marked a genuine milestone in the history of the institution,” said W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio, who held a number of positions at W&L during Wilson’s tenure. “He laid the groundwork for so many of the important things that we have accomplished and will continue to accomplish in years to come.”
A native of Lapeer, Mich., Wilson was a football star at Michigan State, playing defensive back for the Spartan teams that won the national championship in 1951 and 1952. He played in the North-South postseason football game in 1952. He was also a member of the Academic All-American football team and was Michigan State’s first Rhodes Scholar.
Reflecting on those accomplishments in 2001, when he was inducted into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame, Wilson said: “It was easier in those days to balance academics with athletics. Big-time sports didn’t demand so much of you. We had a nine-game season and stopped around Thanksgiving. Then we wouldn’t see each other until spring practice. We became students again.”
In 1955, he earned an M.A. in English literature from Exeter College, Oxford University. Wilson served from 1956 to 1958 in the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer with the Strategic Air Command.
He served as assistant to the vice president of academic affairs at Michigan State for a year before spending four years, 1959 to 1963, as assistant to the president at the State University of New York. He then returned to Michigan State to help lead the Honors College. In 1965, Wilson received his Ph.D. in English literature and then taught Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature at Michigan State as an assistant professor of English.
In 1968, Wilson became president of Wells College, a private liberal arts college for women in Aurora, N.Y. He served there until 1975, when Virginia Tech appointed him that institution’s first provost and executive vice president.
On Sept. 1, 1982, W&L elected Wilson as president. He took office on Jan. 17, 1983, and was inaugurated on May 19, 1983. In a 1994 article in W&L: The Washington and Lee University Magazine, Wilson recalled that he knew little about Washington and Lee, except its reputation, when he was invited to interview for the position. He based his acceptance of the University’s offer largely on his desire to focus on undergraduate education.
“I had a fine and satisfying career at Virginia Tech and I have much respect for research and advanced work,” he said. “But I discovered that my heart really was in those four undergraduate years.”
In February 1984, the W&L Board of Trustees launched a comprehensive study of coeducation. Recalling that often-heated debate, Wilson said in the 1994 alumni magazine story that while he knew there were emotional positions, “we take an oath when we become a member of this Board and that is that we will act in the interests of the institution ‘without fear or favor.’ I had a strong Board, of course, and its members took that oath seriously.”
While the decision and implementation of coeducation was the pivotal moment in his presidency, Wilson also presided over a number of other key advances, including the endowment growth and the continued development of the campus. On The Shoulders of Giants, a $127 million capital campaign, was launched in 1990. At its completion in 1995, it had raised $147 million.
Funds raised through that campaign allowed the construction of the Watson Pavilion and the Duchossois Tennis Center and the transformation of Parmly and Howe Halls into the Science Center. The bulk of the money supported student aid and expanded computer support and academic programs. In addition, the Lenfest Center for Performing Arts was dedicated in May 1991, and the University undertook the Fraternity Renaissance program to renovate the fraternity houses and strengthen the Greek system.
In 2006, the John and Anne Wilson Hall opened at Washington and Lee. The addition to the Lenfest Center is headquarters for the University’s departments of art and art history and music. Longtime W&L benefactors Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest ’53, ’55L gave a major gift to name the building in the Wilsons’ honor.
Wilson was a familiar figure at athletic events as well as theater and music performances. In discussing the construction of the Lenfest Center and its importance to the arts at W&L, Wilson said that “our physical plant and our curriculum would mean nothing without our students. I love being with them. It’s a pleasure to attend games, lectures, concerts.”
Wilson received numerous honors and awards, including a 1984 Ring-tum Phi Award from the student newspaper for outstanding service for “demonstrating the courage to force the university to reexamine itself, primarily with regard to the current coeducation study.” He was inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa, the national honorary leadership society founded at W&L, in 1983.
In 1987, he received the Duffy Daugherty Award from Michigan State for his athletic career there. In 1989, he was elected to the GTE Academic All-America Hall of Fame, also for his college athletic career. W&L awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1996. In 2000, he received Virginia Tech’s Ruffner Medal, its highest honor, for service and dedication to Virginia Tech. President Charles Steger wrote on that occasion, “Virginia Tech would not be the comprehensive university that is today had it not been for John Wilson’s vision and leadership in setting the intellectual agenda of the university as its first provost.” In 2007, he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Lapeer (Mich.) Community Schools.
Wilson belonged to Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Alpha Theta, the Association of American Rhodes Scholars and the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges. He served on the boards of the Virginia Tech Library Systems, the Roanoke Electric Steel Corp., Hollins College and Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy. He was chairman of the board of the Virginia Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy.
He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Anne Yeomans Wilson; their four children, Stephen, of Richmond, Anthony, of Blacksburg, Patrick, of Atlanta, and Sara, of Charlottesville; nine grandchildren; two sisters; and two brothers.
- Roanoke Times
- Lansing Star Journal
- Associated Press/Washington Post
- “A Scholar and a Gentleman:” Roanoke Times Editorial
- Flint (Mich.) Journal
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs