Ed Wilson turns 100; Wake Forest celebrates

The provost emeritus joined the Wake Forest community in 1939


Alumnus Gerald Taylor (front) lowers his mask to show Provost Emeritus Ed Wilson his face at a Feb. 3 event.

Daniel Parolini, News Editor

Wake Forest celebrated two birthdays on Feb. 3 — its own 189th and the 100th of one of the university’s most cherished community members.

Dr. Edwin “Ed” Graves Wilson, known affectionately as “Mr. Wake Forest,” was born Feb. 1, 1923. On Friday, he received birthday wishes in ZSR 401 from a long line of nearly 250 friends and alumni who traveled to campus to celebrate him. 

“It seems like for every generation, he’s had a place in their hearts and in their lives,” Wake Forest alumnus John Daughtry (’68) said. For Daughtry, who took one of Wilson’s English classes, the birthday celebration was a good reason to return to campus for the first time in 20 years. “It’s quite a hallmark for him to [have been] involved in the university this long.”

For every generation, he’s had a place in their hearts and in their lives.

— John Daughtry, alumnus

Wilson graduated from Wake Forest in 1943 after enrolling in his first classes at the age of 16. Then, following his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the completion of his masters and doctorate from Harvard University, Wilson returned to Wake Forest in 1951 to teach English full time, according to his biography.

While current students may be more familiar with the wing of ZSR Library named in his honor than the man himself, Wilson has contributed significantly to Wake Forest’s history. As a new professor, Wilson witnessed the university move from Wake Forest, N.C. to Winston-Salem — and he later contributed to the end of segregation on campus and the establishment of residential study abroad programs in London and Venice.

In 1967, after serving as dean of the college, Wilson became the university’s first provost — a position he held until 1990. Following his tenure as provost, Wilson continued to serve in university leadership in roles such as senior vice president and NCAA faculty representative for more than a decade. 

As his administrative involvement grew, Wilson’s love for his students led him to continue teaching at least one class each semester. He taught a popular course on the British Romantic poets until 1999 — and today, after more than 75 years associated with the university, he remains a defining figure of the Wake Forest community. 

“He remembered people’s names no matter who you were — you could be a worker, a student or a family member,” said ZSR librarian and Wake Forest alumnus Travis Manning (’93), who met Wilson during a visit before attending Wake Forest. “He’s probably the most humble person that I’ve known in my lifetime. And he’s genuine. He’s truly genuine.”

“One of my favorite memories [of Wilson] was Dr. Angelou’s funeral service,” Manning said, referring to the 2014 event in which Wilson was invited to speak alongside the likes of former president Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. “His oration was just on point. It matched the crowd that came before him… he fit right in, and I think he probably excelled beyond that. He made me proud when he stood up there and gave his eulogy.”

Wilson’s renown as an orator is matched only by his love of Wake Forest — and poetry. In addition to authoring Volume Five of “The History of Wake Forest,” Wilson contributed to the creation of the Wake Forest University Press in 1975, which serves today as the “premier publisher of Irish poetry in North America.” 

At the celebration, visitors had the opportunity to pick up a copy of “Songs of Wake Forest” — a collection of eulogies and tributes to colleagues delivered by Wilson, capturing what he understood to be “the essence of Wake Forest” across 40 years of his time there. Selected tributes are displayed in Wilson’s old office at ZSR Library. 

Traversing campus today, Wilson’s legacy is evident — and even on the old campus, the Edwin G. Wilson Reception Gallery invites visitors into the Wake Forest Historical Museum in the town of Wake Forest, according to Museum Director Ed Morris.

This year’s Founders Day program — Feb. 16 at 4 p.m. in Wait Chapel — will feature a commemorative reading of excerpts from Wilson’s 1992 Founders Day speech.