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During the relative quiet of spring break last week, many Wake Forest community members across the country and around the world reflected on the life and legacy of a wise and caring man, Dr. Edwin G. Wilson, professor of English and provost emeritus. Dr. Wilson passed away last Wednesday, March 13.

As I reflected on my relationship with Dr. Wilson, I reflected on my own career, which has taken me to many different universities across the country. With every move, I was eager to learn all I could about each institution and find my place within them. These transitions have had a similar rhythm – meeting new colleagues, opportunities to visit with students, tours of campus, and introductions to the rich and deep histories higher education institutions uniquely possess. 

Wake Forest is my sixth higher education home, and I felt I knew what to expect as I prepared for my transition. But here, the unexpected occurred. I was asked again and again from the moment I was announced as Wake Forest’s 14th president, and many times thereafter: 

“Have you met Dr. Wilson? Mr. Wake Forest?” 

He was mentioned without fail across the many interactions that I had with Wake Foresters. Everyone knew him, knew of him, or had a story to share about him. 

I remember thinking to myself, who could possibly be so completely woven into the fabric of a place that their own name becomes synonymous with the university’s? 

Naturally, I could not wait to meet him, and I did not have to! On July 2, 2021, my second day at Wake Forest, we were introduced. 

Ed Wilson and President Wente share a laugh.

As we got to know one another, I learned that Dr. Wilson came to Wake Forest College when he was just 16 years old to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English, which he received in 1943. While in college, he followed World War II closely, and after graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy on a destroyer escort. When he finished his service in 1946, his connections with our faculty gave him the opportunity to teach at Wake Forest for a year before leaving to receive a master’s degree and doctorate in English from Harvard.

But he quickly returned to Wake Forest in 1951 and built an entire career and a life in service to this University, including serving as our first provost from 1967-1990. From the age of 16 to having just turned 101 this past February, he loved Wake Forest — and Wake Forest loved him in return. 

More than anything, Dr. Wilson was a teacher. Generations of his students, including people from all walks of life who happened to take a poetry course with him, have told me about how his classes changed their lives. Others have said that the advice they received as a result of his wide-open office door shaped their careers and callings. And countless more found their place at Wake Forest simply by being seen and valued by this gentle, deeply caring educator and human being. 

In our first meeting, I asked him for his advice. It was simple: Love every day. When there is a day that does not include Wake Forest’s students, its faculty and staff, find a way to change that. He knew from those many decades of experience what I have since learned – that Wake Forest is special because of our people. And he was right. My interactions with members of this community inspire and motivate me every day. 

As our community mourns Dr. Wilson’s passing, I know that many who were fortunate to know him will reflect on the gift of his friendship, wisdom and abiding kindness. And those who didn’t know him have the opportunity to hear stories about him and understand the influence of Dr. Wilson on this place we all call home. 

I am fortunate to count myself among the many lives he touched in his 101 years. In the days ahead, I will continue to reflect on that first conversation and his support during the first three years of my presidency. I am grateful a portion of our first meeting was captured on July 2, 2021, so I can share it with you

While Dr. Wilson is no longer with us, he will be ever present in the Wake Forest he so loved. It is our time to carry forward the legacy that he leaves behind for us – one of kindness, honor, excellence and friendship. 

May we heed Dr. Wilson’s advice to love every day, and remember his words: “Wake Forest is not a place or a generation. It is an idea, an ideal. And it is to this idea, this ideal, in its transcendence, that we commit ourselves,” constant and true.

Categories: From Wente's Desk