A man with no statue: Rudy Wilson

He called me his daughter. It was half-affection, half-running joke, because we couldn't have looked more different. But there was no doubt that Rudy Wilson was everyone's dad, complete with dad jokes, and his death this week is a blow to the entire community.

He was a quiet groundbreaker, a man dedicated to education throughout his life. He was one of the first black faculty members at SIUE when it was a fledgling campus in 1970. He had already broken ground as the first black teacher at a California college, and when he came here, he taught in the school of education and became the assistant provost for cultural and social diversity.

Part of his job was to mentor student teachers, including visiting them as they worked in area high schools. This became a problem at a local high school and its all-white faculty, according to multiple sources. It was indicated that he was not wanted, and therefore, the university informed them that they would get no more student teachers until they could accept teachers and supervisors of any race. The stalemate continued for more than a decade, apparently ending in 1991.

Rudy was the first black person elected to the Edwardsville school board - and that didn't go over well with everyone, either. He told me about some of the awful things said to him when he was elected, back in the era where they still referred to him as "the Negro on the school board." There were other words, not words that we speak in polite company.

If they left scars, he never showed them. And he became president of the school board before too many years had passed - once again, the first.

Rudy was one of those people who was a source, and then became a friend. When I met him, he was in his final years at the university, developing programs that changed the focus of diversity from being solely about race to also inclusive of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, among others.

In 2010, his former students and fellow educators wrote a book in his honor: Multiculturalism in the Age of the Mosaic: Essays in Honor of Rudolph G. Wilson.

It was his name, but I never once heard anyone call him Rudolph, or Dr. Wilson. From the moment you met him, he was Rudy.

After retirement, he continued to serve. I wrote a series of articles about the malfeasance of a local school district, one that cancelled all special education and let unpaid bills pile up to the point where the district was practically bankrupt. The board and administration were removed from office... and Rudy Wilson stepped in. He chaired a financial oversight panel that unwound the giant mess that district had become, and though it took years and a massive group effort, they righted the ship and saved the school.

That's who he was to the public. A teacher, an administrator, a groundbreaker, a community leader. Not the kind who appears on the front page every day, but the kind who made the world a better place.

To me, he was a dear friend. He was a rich bass voice in our choir, and sang next to me for years, battling our way through service after service. He was a storyteller, using that wonderful voice to enthrall generations of children. He was a husband and father of four, a family man who loved everyone, and "adopted" so many others as his "children" that we are all mourning our lost father figure.

Every week, I'd arrive at choir practice and Rudy would check my hand to see if Jim had proposed yet. Over and over this happened. I insisted we didn't need to get married, and besides, we hadn't been dating all that long!

And Rudy told me the story of how he met LaVernn. She was a proper daughter of a Baptist minister, and there was a dance, but she was standing by the wall.

Rudy went over to ask her to dance, and she declined, as proper young ladies did not dance, he said.

So he stood in front of her, shimmied and wiggled his rear to the music until she agreed to dance with him, if only he would stop! They were married six weeks later. (I got this story with a demonstration of the shimmy, by the way.)

Six weeks! I told him they must have been crazy. "Yes, but it worked!" Rudy insisted. And so he continued to check my hand every week, and ask me frequently when I was going to make an honest man out of Jim.

I went over to LaVernn once at coffee hour, sighed dramatically and said, "Your husband!" She nodded sagely and said, "I know." She didn't even have to ask what shenanigans he'd been up to this time. Whatever it was, it was just Rudy.

"Can you imagine what it was like for our daughters when they were trying to date in high school?" LaVernn asked me. I told her I thought I ought to buy them a fruit basket the next time they came to visit. And their visits were a highlight of the year, for him; Rudy delighted in showing off his grandbabies, and spending as much time as he could with his family.

He walked in my Relay for Life team every year, having fought off cancer himself and cared for his wife as she fought it. We sell glow necklaces at Relay, and we've never made so much money as we did when Rudy was on the team. I could hand Rudy a stack of glow necklaces and send him out among the people, and he'd come back for more necklaces with a fistful of cash. No one could resist Rudy with those glow necklaces.

In fact, no one could resist Rudy.

Rudy and LaVernn at Relay for Life

Almost no one was happier than Rudy when Jim and I finally got engaged. Jim's first proposal was at the castle in the Magic Kingdom, but the formal proposal with the engagement ring (once it was paid off) was months later at our church. Rudy was so happy for us, and even now I choke up a little knowing that the Alzheimer's was eating away at his mind before we finally went down the aisle.

We lost him on Monday. I wrote his official obituary story the next day. I've had to write obituaries for people I knew before, but none as close as Rudy.

There are no statues in the town square for men like Rudy Wilson, and that is a shame. Rudy was one of the finest men I have ever known, a man whose irrepressible sense of humor and love of family went hand in hand with his devotion to education and public service. They say that the measure of a life is whether the world is a better place for your presence in it, and if that is true, Rudy was truly beyond measure in the lives that he changed.

We need more Rudy Wilsons in this world, and we are all the poorer now that he has left us.


  1. Anonymous8:09 AM

    *hugs* Sounds like the world is a bit less bright with people like him gone.

  2. What a beautiful piece. I know first hand that this amazing man lives in his son Trent and his beautiful wife and amazing grandsons.

  3. Rev. Kathleen Bleyaert, PhD.10:05 PM

    So glad this article was written. It touched my heart, reminded me of the wonderful people in our world, and blessed me to know Elizabeth Donald used her expertise to share with all of us.


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