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Wilson led Washington and Lee University through its transition to a coeducational institution.
Monday, March 4, 2013
John Delane Wilson was a college football star and a Shakespearean scholar, two skill sets that came in handy as he steered Washington and Lee University through a tumultuous transition to coeducation in 1985.
Wilson, who died Saturday at 81, was president of W&L from 1983 to 1995 and previously served as Virginia Tech’s first provost and executive vice president. He is remembered for his keen intellect and a fearless leadership style that helped position both schools for the future.
Upon accepting the presidential post in Lexington, Wilson spent months meeting individually with faculty members and posing the same question to each one: “What one thing would you do to make this place better”? He was repeatedly advised to admit women to the institution.
Wilson, who earlier in his career had been president of the all-women Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., traveled around the country to build support among alumni. Many embraced the idea, but there were rowdy meetings with vocal opponents. Signs of resistance also appeared on campus in the form of placards that read “Better dead than coed” and bunting draped over the wooden statue atop Washington Hall nicknamed “Old George” that proclaimed “No Marthas.”
Nevertheless, Wilson’s personal outreach efforts were rewarded when the board of trustees voted for coeducation.
“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,’ ” Wilson said in an interview for a 1994 alumni magazine article on his tenure, adding, “I think a lot of the alumni then discovered they had daughters.”
The student newspaper honored Wilson for “demonstrating the courage to force the university to re-examine itself.”
Wilson’s influence is also still tangible at Tech. During his time as provost, he helped to broaden the university’s academic reputation with a “writing across the curriculum” initiative that stressed writing skills across all academic fields, including engineering and agriculture.
“He had very high standards in everything he undertook,” said former Tech President Paul Torgersen. “And he had high expectations.”
“A university education is a conversation,” Wilson said in the alumni magazine article. “You can say I have spent my career trying my best to assist in contriving the conditions where the level of conversation can rise.”
That conversation continues both in Lexington and in Blacksburg, a living and evolving legacy to a man who set high ideals and had the fortitude to see them through to reality.
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