John Wilson moved Washington and Lee forward
John Wilson, who died Saturday, was president when the school became coeducational in 1985.
Washington and Lee University
Former colleagues remembered John Wilson for his get-it-done attitude and keen sense of humor.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
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Monday, March 4, 2013
His trusted leadership guided Washington and Lee University to where it is today.
Former university president John Delane Wilson , 81, died Saturday, leaving behind a legacy of shepherding the university through several pivotal milestones, including the transition to becoming coeducational.
Wilson, who served as president from 1983 to 1995 , was known to hold students and faculty to high standards. He also had a keen sense of humor and a knack for making people feel important, former colleagues remembered.
“One of his chief characteristics was John really wanted everyone to be the best they could be. He wanted everyone to achieve, in whatever field they were involved in, at the top of their ability,” said Farris Hotchkiss , who was vice president for university relations during Wilson’s tenure.
Hotchkiss said Wilson would help people achieve and expected results.
“He certainly held out for Washington and Lee a standard for achievement and excellence,” Hotchkiss said.
Indeed, Wilson is credited with moving the school forward in a number of ways.
It was only about a year after he took office that the school’s board of trustees launched a comprehensive study of coeducation. The school went co ed in fall 1985.
He led that transformation and oversaw significant capital improvements, including the renovation of 15 fraternity houses, known as the Fraternity Renaissance. According to a news release from the university, the school’s endowment also doubled during Wilson’s time and he launched and completed a multimillion-dollar capital campaign.
“If we didn’t have those today, we’d be a much lesser place,” Hotchkiss said.
Beyond his accomplishments in moving the university forward, Wilson also had a way of listening to people.
"The wonderful thing about John Wilson was that when you were talking to John, he made you feel like the most important person and you were the person he would rather talk to more than anyone else," Hotchkiss said. "That was a marvelous talent he had. He was a good listener. He genuinely wanted to know what was on the minds of his students and his faculty."
Retired faculty member Fred Schwab also remembers that trait well.
"One of the first things he did was he made the rounds and would come to each faculty member's office or vice versa," Schwab said. "He took a really personal interest in each of the faculty members."
Schwab, who was a geology professor during Wilson's tenure, said sometimes it can feel as if the faculty are on one side and the administrators are on another, but not with Wilson.
"It wasn't an employer-employee thing. We were all in it together," he said. "As a professor, I listened to him, and he paid just as much attention to me."
Looking back, Schwab said Wilson moved the school forward and kept it relevant.
"He better enabled us to keep up with the times," he said. "He was a great guy and I have so much affection for him and respect for him."
Wilson, a Michigan native, came to Washington and Lee after serving as Virginia Tech's first provost and executive vice president. He came to Virginia Tech in 1975 and left eight years later for W&L.
Current Washington and Lee University President Kenneth Ruscio said he was a young faculty member and a young member of administration while Wilson was president.
He said Wilson was dedicated to academic excellence and set high standards, but also had a sense of humor. He recalled Wilson was also someone who wanted to get things done, not the kind of person to simply stand around and ponder something.
"He would identify a problem or a concern and just get to work on it," Ruscio said.
Ruscio also recalled a conversation he had with Wilson as a young professor. He told Wilson he intended to teach a course on leadership.
"He got wind of that and called me in and said, 'That's all well and good, but you can't teach leadership,' " Ruscio said.
Then Ruscio remembers Wilson pointing out to him that all good leaders have nothing in common before briefly amending his comment.
"There is one thing good leaders have in common, and that is that they are trusted," Ruscio recalled Wilson saying. "If you have someone who is a good leader, that person will always be trusted."
Ruscio said looking back, that encapsulates Wilson's own leadership.
"He was someone people trusted," Ruscio said, "and put their faith in and had a great deal of confidence in."
Wilson is survived by his wife of 56 years, Anne Yeomans Wilson; four children; nine grandchildren; two sisters; and two brothers.
A private service for the family will be held today. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
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