John D. Wilson, former president of Washington and Lee University, dies at 81

March 4, 2013

John D. Wilson, a former president of Washington and Lee University who led the school as it made the transition to a coeducational institution, died March 2 in Lexington, Va. He was 81.

His death was announced by the university. The cause was not reported.

Dr. Wilson served as Washington and Lee’s president from 1983 to 1995. During his tenure, the university doubled its endowment, raised $147 million through a capital campaign, opened the Lenfest Center for the Arts and renovated 15 fraternity houses.

“John Wilson’s presidency marked a genuine milestone in the history of the institution,” said Kenneth P. Ruscio, Washington and Lee’s president. “He laid the groundwork for so many of the important things that we have accomplished and will continue to accomplish in years to come.”

Dr. Wilson said in a 1994 interview with W&L magazine that he knew there were strong emotions in the debate over coeducation, but that “we take an oath when we become a member of this Board and that is that we will act in the interests of the institution ‘without fear or favor.’ I had a strong Board, of course, and its members took that oath seriously.”


John D. Wilson (Courtesy of Washington and Lee University)

Before coming to Washington and Lee, Dr. Wilson served as Virginia Tech’s first provost.

“I had a fine and satisfying career at Virginia Tech and I have much respect for research and advanced work,” he said in the 1994 magazine interview. “But I discovered that my heart really was in those four undergraduate years.”

John Delane Wilson was born in Lapeer, Mich. He was a Michigan State University graduate, played for MSU’s 1951 and 1952 national championship football teams and was the school’s first Rhodes Scholar, according to Washington and Lee. He received a master’s degree in 1955 from Exeter College at Oxford University.

Dr. Wilson served in the Air Force as an intelligence officer with the Strategic Air Command from 1956 to 1958. He received a PhD in English literature from Michigan State in 1965.

He served as president of Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., from 1968 until he was appointed provost at Virginia Tech in 1975.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Anne Yeomans Wilson; four children; two sisters; two brothers; and nine grandchildren.

— News services and staff reports

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