When Rudy Wilson entered a metro-east high school to check up on some of his student teachers, it was made very clear that he wasn’t wanted there.
It was the 1970s, and Wilson was an education professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He had already broken ground as the first black professor at Claremont University in California when he became one of the first black faculty members at SIUE.
But after his unfriendly reception at a high school when he was trying to mentor his student teachers, SIUE stopped placing student teachers there until they could accept teachers of any race — which took at least another 10 years.
Wilson died on Monday at age 82, leaving a legacy of breaking ground without many headlines. He was the first black member of the Edwardsville District 7 school board, eventually becoming board president, serving a total of 18 years.
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Among his many roles, Wilson was SIUE’s assistant provost for cultural and social diversity, creating diversity initiatives, programs for minority student and faculty retention and scholarships for underrepresented students.
“He was a dynamo, he was involved in everything,” said David Werner, retired chancellor of SIUE. Wilson and Werner knew each other for at least 45 years, he said, serving in administrative roles together. He said Wilson’s efforts to help minority students finish college probably kept thousands of students in school.
“He was a wonderful person, and he was great at all of the jobs that he had,” Werner said. “He was respected by students and faculty... He could be a very stern father figure when he needed to be one, not only to his own children but to the university members.”
In fact, Wilson had a habit of “adopting” people into his family. Lauren Wethers, a family friend from childhood, said Wilson met her family at a playground and just walked up and introduced himself.
“I was six, so I don’t remember it well, but I’m sure it was because he had a natural tendency to make friends with everyone around and because he wanted to make sure that a young black family in the area had support,” Wethers said. “I’m so lucky he did, because he eventually became both a godfather and a grandfather figure for me and my brother.”
Wethers said Wilson encouraged her and her brother, Harrison Wethers, into new experiences. “He knew I wanted to be a writer, and always made sure to ask me what I was working on,” she said. “I could tell he actually cared, which meant the world to me... We might not have been blood-related, but from day one, he always made us feel like family.”
In fact, Wilson’s former students and fellow educators wrote a book in his honor in 2010: “Multiculturalism in the Age of the Mosaic: Essays in Honor of Rudolph G. Wilson.” Yet after retirement, Wilson continued to serve. After the Venice school board was removed by the state, Wilson chaired the financial oversight panel that sorted out the district’s troubled finances and brought it back to solvency.
He was known in Edwardsville as a storyteller, a singer, and a community leader, volunteering with his church for decades. He was married to S. LaVernn Wilson for more than 50 years up to his death, and had four children: Amy, Dana, Trent and James; as well as several grandchildren.
A memorial mass will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edwardsville. Memorials are requested to St. Andrew’s, Edwardsville Community Center or the Rudolph Wilson Scholarship Fund No. 2838 at the SIUE Foundation. Weber & Rodney Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.