Remembering Mr. Wilson

By Marty Dobrow | Summer 2015

IT WAS SAD, OF COURSE. TRAGIC, REALLY. As generations of students poured into the funeral home in Holyoke on a frigid Friday afternoon in late February, you couldn’t deny the piercing loss. How could it possibly be true? Mr. Wilson was gone.But looking around the room as it kept filling and filling, another reality dawned just as clearly: there was plenty of joy. In death, as in life, John McSwain Wilson was bringing people together. Black, white, Hispanic, you name it. The place resembled a bigger version of the Multicultural Affairs Center at Springfield College, where Wilson spent more than half of his 74 years.It seemed, eerily, like old times. Here at his wake were Wilson’s programs in living color. This was “Cultural Connections.” This was the “Student Society for Bridging Diversity.” The spirit of the room was, indeed, a “Unityfest.”There were hugs and laughter, smiles, lots of smiles — even as people kept talking about his smile, that smile. The slow sunrise. And the stories? All week people had been sharing stories about Mr. Wilson.

John Wilson older portrait

The way he connected people: to each other, to him, to the best of themselves. Aaron Kelton ’92, head football coach at Williams College, first of his family to graduate, remembered friends flocking to the multicultural office almost every day: “He was that person for us, that figure we connected with most to make our experience great.”

John Wilson

Carmen Oyola Callender ’08, a teacher in Springfield’s public schools, recalled the office as “a total open door,” with the “atmosphere of family.”

“Fatherly,” was the first word from Nate Harris ’08, a marketing executive in Philadelphia. Indeed, while Wilson and his wife of 40 years, Mary Lou, never had children of their own, the family tree was laden with Springfield College surrogate children,
the apple never falling very far.

Harris loved both the support he always got from Wilson (“my hype-man”), and the chop-busting laughter (insisting he could beat Harris in a push-up contest).They remembered his relentless advocacy. “He was,” says senior Edrine Olowo, who came to Springfield from Ethiopia, “a fixer.” Sometimes that meant an empathic shoulder. Sometimes it meant quietly paying for — and delivering — textbooks to students facing financial hardship.

For students of color, Wilson was a magnet for 38 years. That support was huge, says Cynthia Swan ’98, assistant director of undergraduate admissions and coordinator of multicultural recruitment who — like many — says she would never have gotten through college without Wilson. But Swan says Wilson believed in multiculturalism in the broadest sense: “It was an all-inclusive concept (to him). It doesn’t exclude anyone.”

Witness Alex Benson ’06, from downtown Springfield — Springfield, Vt., an environment where his Caucasian skin fit in with almost everyone. At Springfield College, he was drawn into Wilson’s orbit and wound up working for him in the multicultural office and the 5A tutoring program. Traveling down from Vermont for the wake was an easy choice: “For many people, myself included, Mr. Wilson was an example of what a man is supposed to be. He showed me what a leader is, how a person should act and should be, what he should expect from himself.”

It was surreal, of course, the way death always is at first. There was Mr. Wilson in the front of the room, his eyes closed, even as his vision of the world flourished around him.

He had died the previous Friday night, February 13. Friday the 13th — the unluckiest day of all.

But no one at Springfield College found out until the next day, the 14th. Not just right in the middle of Black History Month, but Valentine’s Day.

The sadness was undeniable.

The love, even more so.