Lifetime of Curiosity and Inquiry: John Wilson W&L Alumni Magazine: Winter 2013
YOU HAVE READ elsewhere in this issue about John Wilson, president of Washington and Lee from 1983 until his retirement in 1995. Here are a few of my thoughts about John.
I once introduced him to a group of students and mentioned that as a student at Michigan State, he played football and was named an All- American. Afterwards, he called me aside to correct me. He was actually an Academic All-American, which was different. You might think that revealed his modesty. In fact, it was his pride. He'd rather be known for his academic success first, his athletic success second.
He was fond of describing a college as an extended conversation- among students; among faculty; and between faculty and students. It happens in different languages, modern and ancient; and in various forms, including the languages of mathematics and scientific experimentation and through musical and artistic expression. It spans academic disciplines and here today, through our reading of literature and philosophy, could converse with those from earlier times and from other places.
He pushed back against trends. He was not opposed to what we now like to call student engagement. But he also knew that the four undergraduate years were precious ones, perhaps the only time in one's life when one could separate oneself from the world for purposes of reflection and exercise the option not to be engaged.
The man responsible for so many changes was at heart a traditionalist who believed a university should prepare individuals for a lifetime of curiosity and inquiry.
To build that foundation for a life of the mind in the future, a student had to learn the wisdom of the past.
He had a great sense of humor. The college presidency, he said, was the only job that required you to live in a mansion so you could beg for a living.
He loved music, especially the works of Mahler. He loved literature and history, especially from Ireland. He loved sports, especially tennis in his later years, but enjoyed watching just about any form of athletic competition. He was eloquent in his writing and his speaking.
You have read how he led the University through the decision to coeducate. You also have read that he was responsible for working with then trustee Gerry Lenfest '53, ‘55L to find a new home for the performing arts. You may have heard about the Fraternity Renaissance or a number of other things that occurred during his presidency.
But his legacy, in the end, was ensuring the University remained committed to academic excellence. All those accomplishments were directed to that single, overriding principle.
This University has long been known for its commitment to excellence. He ensured that could endure and would endure well after his time in office. His achievement was to further define and clarify our mission as an institution of higher learning with excellence at the core of our existence.