Earl Wilson Jr., founder of the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation and a legendary advocate for the African-American community in St. Louis, passed away approximately 8 a.m. Friday, October 29, 2010 at his home in St. Louis.
He passed of pancreatic cancer that had been diagnosed in January of this year. He was 78.
His life will be celebrated this Saturday, November 6 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church (701 N. 18th St.) with a visitation at 10 a.m. and the funeral mass following at 11 a.m.
The repast will be held at the Gateway Classic, 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., following the mass. The family will bury their beloved privately at Calvary Cemetery and then join the other mourners at the repast.
His wife, Billie H. Wilson, daughter Denise Wilson and daughter Theresa Anderson were with Wilson when he passed.
Other survivors include his daughters Stacey Wilson McMahon and Kimberly Wilson; his sons Richard Gray, Steven M. Anderson, Michael Anderson, David Anderson and Bill Anderson; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
“My dad was a really big figure in our lives, and at the same time he took a lot of care with trying to do for our community in St. Louis,” said Kimberly Wilson.
“He is going to leave a huge hole.”
He is mourned by the 108 scholars who attended higher education at an historically black college or university through a total of $2.8 million in Gateway Classic scholarships, using funds raised primarily through an annual fall football game.
“He took the concept of a football game and grew it into a powerful positive force that has uplifted our entire community,” said U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, a cousin of Wilson’s who will help to bear his casket on Saturday.
He is mourned by dozens of African Americans of high achievement who have been enshrined in the Gateway Classic Walk of Fame, which honors such St. Louis-area legends as former Congressman William L. Clay, Jackie-Joyner Kersee, Ozzie Smith, The 5th Dimension and comedian Dick Gregory.
“He took the could-be wasteland and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’” Gregory said of Wilson.
He is mourned by hundreds of community advocates and activists who used the Gateway Classic facility as a safe haven and organizing hub.
When the Post-Dispatch fired its gadfly African-American columnist Sylvester Brown Jr. for alleged minor ethics violations (related to accepting a plane ticket from event organizers), Wilson hosted a press conference where Brown told his story.
“Nothing meant more to me than having Earl stand behind me during the press conference,” Brown said.
He is mourned by other civic leaders in the black community, who realize now they have one fewer general in the field.
“Earl’s strong sense of community informed his determination and willingness to work hard,” said Donald M. Suggs, publisher and executive editor of The St. Louis American.
“We mourn his passing, but his legacy of concern for the needs of others is enduring. A proud, exemplary, no-nonsense leader and family man, he is held in the highest esteem by those who know him in St. Louis and around the country.”
Scrapper from Carr Square
Earl Wilson Jr. was born on October 9, 1932, the middle son in a hardscrabble, tight-knit family based in a tenement in Carr Square on the edge of downtown St. Louis.
Wilson was raised by his mother, Virginia Wilson, with fighting spirit. “He was a man of the street back in the day,” his childhood friend Albert Ross said.
Wilson fought successfully in the ring, winning a Golden Gloves boxing championship, and he defended himself and his friends on the street. The childhood fallback of his physical toughness proved important in his future leadership.
“I think it’s important that we have a foundation that we can love and respect each other, but more importantly to defend,” Wilson said in a major 2009 St. Louis American profile.
He was educated in the St. Louis Public Schools (graduating from Vashon High School), Harris Stowe Teachers College and Lincoln University. Before establishing the legacy of the Gateway Classic, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and worked his way up at IBM; in his final position, he led a $1.4 billion operation with more than 100 salesmen.
At every step, street smarts led to establishment success. Street fights led to a boxing belt. Dimes earned shining shoes were saved and paved his way to Lincoln University. Poker and dice games he hosted on campus paid the bills. Schemes to sell cigarettes to his classmates honed skills that paid off in a 30-year corporate sales career.
When he pushed for 60 percent African-American workers on the job to build the Gateway Classic building that now bears his name, his reasoning was simple: “If you control the money, you can control the jobs.”
In fact, his legacy foundation was established with a mantra of self-sufficiency and integrity that still sells on the street: “Don’t sell out, don’t cop out, stay the course.”
A prankster, a pistol
His family knows better than anyone the calibre of fighter the community has lost.
“He probably would challenge tomorrow’s leaders to step up and take risks for our community,” his youngest daughter Kimberly Wilson said.
“He was a big proponent of black businesses and supporting each other, making sure we take care of our own, and he would want to see others continue to put efforts in that direction.”
But in the obituary his family prepared for his funeral on Saturday, there was very little talk of official accomplishment. Every effort was made, instead, to communicate the style of the man.
“His personality will be as hard to find again as anything else,” Kimberly Wilson said. “He was a prankster, a pistol. He had his very own flair, his very own style.”
The 2009 St. Louis American profile of Wilson attracted an online comment from Marva L. Stith, who had been the Wilsons’ neighbor in Richmond Heights many years ago. From the distance of the years, she revelled in the memory of Wilson’s “mind-boggling, thought-provoking, action-inspiring personality.”
One of his seven grandchildren, Dawn Fuller, wrote a lengthy memoir of the man that recalled one of many incidents at the Gateway Classic, where Earl Wilson Jr. spent a great deal of downtime in the kitchen, cooking for staff, family and friends. In fact, the kitchen at the foundation was designed by and for him.
“One afternoon, Earl got on the building intercom and frantically called all staff to immediately report to the conference room. It was a bit odd and unexpected, since we had already conducted the full staff meeting earlier in the morning. Upon sitting down, it was obvious that Earl was upset. He almost seemed disillusioned,” Fuller wrote.
“The room was quiet as all eyes and ears were focused on him. And then we got the news: ‘I take care of all of you, and I cook for all of you. I do anything for you if you just ask. But someone took my spices. We aren’t going to leave today until I find out who took my spices.’”
In lieu of floral arrangements, the family asks the community to consider a charitable contribution to the scholarship fund of the Earl Wilson, Jr., St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation.