Amherst Magazine

Douglas Cook Wilson '62

Submitted by Craig H. Morgan

From The Olio

Wilson DOUGLAS COOK WILSON
1326 Pickwick Place, Bloomington, Ind.
Prepared at The University School
History,
Phi Alpha Psi
Chest Drive,
STUDENT,
Chairman, SCARAB,
Mardi Gras,
SPHINX,
Armstrong Prize, Corbin Prize

Douglas Cook (Doug) Wilson '62, died May 5 , 2008
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In Memory

Our class--and all of Amherst--has lost a wonderful, enormously talented friend and chronicler. Doug Wilson has succumbed to cancer. Here, leading off, we have wonderful memorial written by John McDermott ----

The facts of Doug Wilson's personal and professional life are recounted in a rare inside-front-cover obituary in the spring 2008 issue of Amherst, which appeared shortly after he died on May 5. Here, with the help of our classmates and Doug's colleagues, I want to say some personal things about Doug, because as the Reverend Rob Hirschfeld put it at Doug's memorial service, "we know that he would never do so himself."

Over the years, Doug wrote widely about other people: historical figures, contemporary political figures, and those who have built Amherst College. Despite his physical decline over the past few years, his mind remained keen and incisive to the end so that he could complete and see the publication of his final book Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College, which tells Amherst's story through Doug's own essays and those of the College's faculty, staff, graduates, and friends. Through the generosity of Blair and Fred Sadler, members of the Class of '62 have a copy of Doug's book as a final tribute.

Our classmate Dick Todd, who knows a thing or two about writing and editing, puts it this way: "Doug Wilson represented the face of journalism at its best, and so contrary to the popular image of that much-maligned trade. Unlike some of those vain, brash types we see on television, he was quiet, thoughtful, and self-effacing."

For more than thirty years, Doug represented the College and served the town of Amherst, "where only the 'h' is silent," Unlike so many, however, Doug listened. When he was with you, he spent far more time inquiring about what was going on in your life and listening to your point of view than he did talking about himself and what he was doing. Jim Guest recalls that those qualities were already evident when Doug and Jim worked together on the Amherst Student. "I remember being impressed that, in the midst of the smart and often somewhat arrogant writers and editors, Doug was always gracious, humble, quietly competent, not taken with himself. He could be firm and decisive, but in a supportive and thoughtful manner.&quot Rich Landfield recalls running into Doug on the bus from Bethesda to D.C. ten years after we graduated: "I got a very warm greeting -- very different from all my friends who were self-important because they were doing important things in a very important city."

We valued his sense of humor, which was wry and quirky rather than caustic or mean-spirited. He could do dead-on imitations of public figures and Amherst College worthies, but he never compromised his qualities of empathy, respect, and affection. He wrote limericks and was a regular contributor to The New Yorker's cartoon caption competition. He was not above an impractical joke, as I learned one dark night when I found a large and decidedly unclean campus dog in my bed in the sleeping room of Phi Psi. I didn't need the muffled chuckles from two beds away to tell me who the perpetrator was.

Larry Weiss recalls that the Wilsons' home on Pomeroy Lane became a destination for those of us who returned to Amherst for reunions or who sought out Doug and Sherry when our children enrolled at the College. It did not matter if we had only been casual acquaintances as undergraduates; association with the College was enough. Coming back to Amherst won't be quite the same without being able to get Doug's take on campus developments.

I will always value Doug's constancy. Over the years when distance separated us, weeks and sometimes months would pass between conversations, but when we reconnected, Doug would always pick up where we had left off. Sandy Short speaks for many of us when he says that it truly hurts to know that we can no longer call on Doug's sensitive, penetrating wit and intelligence to lift our spirits and sensibilities. Fond memories will have to do.

When we saw more of each other in retirement, Doug was the same person who, as Best Man, held me together when Emily and I were married in 1964. His constancy never wavered, even when the ravages of his illnesses took their toll in the last weeks of his life. He would acknowledge his discomfort and disorientation, and we would sometimes shed a tear or two, but in mere moments he would turn those thoughts aside with a quip or a colorful (or off-color) metaphor and ask me what I was up to.

On reunion weekend, a month after Doug died, Emily and I attended the Service of Remembrance and Community at the College's War Memorial, a service that marks the lives of Amherst graduates who have died in the past year. One of the final prayers at this year's service, from Robert Louis Stevenson, could not have been more fitting as a tribute to Doug and a benediction for us all:

"Give us courage, gaiety, and a quiet mind. Soften to us our enemies and spare to us our friends. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, so that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to one another."

The death of any Amherst graduate diminishes our community in some measure. In Doug Wilson's case, however, because he told Amherst's story so well over so many years, our sadness must be tempered by a sense of profound gratitude.

---John McDermott '62

Second, here is the piece issued by the Amherst Office of Public Affairs-----
Douglas C. Wilson '62, longtime Amherst College public affairs officer and editor, died May 5 at his home in Amherst. He was 67. A former Washington journalist, he served his alma mater for 27 years before retiring in 2002.

Prior to joining the college's administration in 1975, Wilson worked for 13 years as a reporter for The Providence Journal, first in Rhode Island and later as Washington correspondent. On Aug. 7, 1974, he was the first newsperson to report Richard Nixon's decision to resign as president – a breaking story for which he received the Merriman Smith Memorial Award from the White House Correspondents Association.

Wilson edited Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College, an anthology of essays on the college's history, which was published in December 2007 by Amherst College Press. He wrote eight of the 28 essays, most of which appeared in Amherst, the alumni magazine which he had edited.

Earlier this year, the Amherst Historical Society honored him with the second annual Conch Shell Award or his contributions to local history including his recent book.

Wilson was born in Providence, R. I. on Dec. 18, 1940, a son of the late William E. and Ellen (Cameron) Wilson. He grew up in Bloomington, Ind., where he attended University School before entering Amherst College. After graduating from Amherst with honors with a major in American history in 1962, he earned a master's degree in international studies from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He began his newspaper career as a reporter in the Providence Journal's Pawtucket and Newport bureaus, and was on the paper's city staff in Providence from 1965 to 1968. He was also a public information specialist in Rhode Island's Army National Guard from 1962 to 1968.

In 1968-69 Wilson was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association, working in Washington as a staff member in the offices of Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Rep. John V. Tunney (D-Calif.). Subsequently, as a reporter in the Journal's Washington bureau, he wrote stories that included regular coverage of Capitol Hill, a series on the regime of President Salvador Allende in Chile, U.S. presidential politics, and other assignments.

Wilson left the Providence paper and returned to his alma mater in 1975 as associate secretary of the college. He became Amherst's secretary for public affairs two years later, succeeding Horace W. Hewlett upon Hewlett's retirement. He was named college editor in 1998. He was editor of the college's alumni magazine for 25 years and for much of that time also was Amherst's media spokesperson. He helped produce most of the college's publications, including several books issued by Amherst College Press. He collaborated with colleagues to produce The College on the Hill, a book of historical photographs from the college archives.

Wilson retired in 2002 and was awarded the college's Medal for Eminent Service in 2003.

Wilson maintained a lifelong interest in both colonial and nineteenth-century American history. His essay of historical detective work, "Web of Secrecy: Goffe, Whaley, and the Legend of Hadley" [Mass.], about the English regicide judges who found exile in Hadley in the 17th century, was published in the New England Quarterly in 1985. It received that year's Walter Muir Whitehill Prize of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

From 1979 to 1981 Wilson was chairman of Amherst town historical commission. During that time the commission published Lost Amherst, a book of photographs of town, university and college buildings that no longer exist. At different times Wilson also served as a member and chair of both the town's conservation commission and the Western Massachusetts Broadcasting Council.

He is survived by the local newspaper writer and columnist Cheryl (Bailey) Wilson and three children, Jay Wilson and his wife, Jennifer Zinsser Wilson, of Bronxville, N.Y., Emily Wilson of Brooklyn, N.Y., Samuel Wilson, also of Brooklyn; and a granddaughter, Isabella Rose Wilson, in Bronxville, N.Y. He is also survived by his older brother, William E. Wilson of Georgetown, Colo., and his twin brother, Swami Anantananda of South Fallsburg, N.Y. He also is survived by a nephew, Gordon Wilson, of San Francisco, Calif., with his wife Melissa Townsend, and their son, Jesse, and by his niece, Ellen Wilson of Carrboro, N.C., and her son, Pablo.

---Caroline J. Hanna, Director of Media Relations

And finally, here is the homily delivered by Reverend A. Robert Hirschfeld, on May 9, 2008 at Grace Episcopal Church, Amherst-------

Because we know he would never do so, I want to say some very big things about our friend Douglas Wilson. Without doubt, Doug was an exemplary husband, father, colleague, journalist, and friend. He leaves us having changed us, and having changed this world for the better.

He was a man of tremendous and supple wit. His urn over night was resting on a chair close to my volumes of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Milton, and John Donne. All filled with wit and turns of phrase that he admired. Sherry told me that he would be happy to there, and my faith tells me that Doug is enjoying converse with them all now. Doug's death, as John Donne himself would put it, diminishes me. I feel diminished not so much because I am involved in Mankind, as Donne said, but because Doug was so involved with humankind.

He was a man of extraordinary dignity, respect, kindness, and there was a sweetness about Douglas that is rare among men these days, a kind of humility and eagerness to observe and listen that lent him a peculiar sort of power. In a college town that prides itself on its robust exercise of free speech, as the t-shirt says, "Amherst, where only the H is silent," Douglas' capacity to inquire, to listen and observe, represented for me the real power. It's the listeners of this community that hold the real power, for without them, the speakers would be just "a noisy gong or clanging cymbal" to borrow from St. Paul's metaphor. And just as St. Paul would say, what gave Douglas the skill of listening was the greatest gift of all, which is love. His was heart full of love, and you and I had come to rely on that love, his love for us, for humanity, with all its foibles and intricacies, complexities.

The power of Doug's capacity for listening allowed his most famous journalistic accomplishment. He believed that everyone deserved a chance to be heard. And that openness, even if it was in conflict with what we now call political correctness, led him to an interview in the early 70's with a Rabbi Korff, a religious leader who had founded a group supporting Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis. As Sherry told me, "Most reporters thought Korff was crazy and gave him short shrift." As always, Doug's article about him in the Providence Journal about Korff was accurate, balanced and neutral. Later, when the rabbi was seen leaving the White House in early August 1974 after meeting with the President, Douglas tracked him down at this hotel to try to get a story, and as a result of his earlier fair treatment of him, Korff agreed to talk with Doug. The rest is literally history, as Doug got the story that stopped the presses and announced Nixon's decision to resign, a journalistic coup that won him the Merriam Smith Award from the White House Correspondents' Association.

The power of listening, of allowing space for the other to be acknowledged and heard…this was one of Doug's greatest gifts and it's a gift that is such short supply in our lives. It's nothing short of the power of creation because it means we are heard into our speech. We are listened into our very identity.

I wonder if one reason we are all here today is because each of us were allowed in Doug's presence to become more of who were meant to be. He listened us more into our essential being, and he did that because he had a heart that assumed he could accept us rather than critique or find fault or condemn us. His dignity called forth our own dignity. Even as he was dying, I found him a man of utmost grace and generosity of spirit. My own experience cannot be unique-- last week, as I visited him for the last time, he lay (he surely didn't lie!) on his bed, and though he was exhausted at near the end, he asked me, "So what did you do today?" I told him with some self-consciousness that I had to have a long meeting with the Bishop, the last thing I wanted to talk with him about at a time like this. Doug then asked, "and was that fun for you?"

He was known by the friends with whom I spoke as a wonderful conversationalist. He would drop by the various offices in Converse Hall to hear what was new and to share what he knew. Some might call that gossip, but it usually didn't contain the self-righteousness that usually attaches to gossip. One of you said, "He must have had a very happy childhood, because he was so rarely made irate or angry by the changes that were not always very welcome that took place over the past thirty years. Sometimes the default response was outrage to some of the changes, but Doug helped me keep things in perspective."

Clearly one of the ways he managed that perspective was his wit and his strange and often irreverent humor. At one time he wanted to become a political cartoonist for a newspaper. Instead he would share limericks with friends. Harrison Gregg edited a few which are suitable for a church pulpit, though barely. Here are a couple limericks that were triggered by the general invitation to Community Teas at the College:

The Amherst Community Tease!
Come and see ankles and knees
And maybe a thigh
And if hems get too high
The thing that no proper boy sees.
(Well maybe I won't quote that one…you'll have to ask Harrison at the Reception afterward.)

Here's one:

My job will be cutting the cheese
At the Amherst Community Teas
You can sagely assume
It will empty the room
And end the Community Teas

 

His sense of humor was quite wry apparently. Sometimes it took a few moments for one to realize he was being funny. Sherry informed me that once in an elevator in Washington a woman accosted him and said, "Sir, you have the saddest face I have ever seen." Douglas responded, "I'm sorry ma'am, but I was just born that way."

Later, the power of his wit reached the level of the divine; and by that I mean what I mean. Just like in Genesis, where we find that by the speak, God created the heavens and the earth, so by Douglas word, a strange reef was created in the South Pacific, and can be seen to this day on the Internet. [Webmaster note -- check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilson_Island_(Queensland) ]

Because we know he would never do so, I want to say some very big things about our friend Douglas Wilson. And they are these: in the Christian tradition, we believe that God became human so that humanity can share the divine life. As we heard from one of the reading this morning, God makes his place with humanity. Another of the central beliefs of the faith is that within God is a community, a fellowship, a holy conversation of mutual devotion, admiration, curiosity, delight. These are attributes within the very being of God as Trinity. Doug would object to this fiercely, but he gave me the floor. I ask his forgiveness, but what we cherish about this man was his beautiful, sweet, open-hearted, curious, grammatically exacting, accepting, humanity. We see in Doug's children, in Emily, Sam, and Jay, a family whose own kindness and immense creativity were instilled, nourished, and celebrated by both Doug and Sherry. Doug's own contemplative sense of wonder in the beauty of the world, natural and human, is so obviously transmitted to them and to their relationships. In Doug's presence, we were allowed to be more fully ourselves, and to know ourselves as worthy of love. For me, and for us in the Church, that's what it means to live a holy life.

Those of us in the church we seek holiness of life, and we rejoice and celebrate it when we see it. Doug's sweetness, his irreverence, his wit, and his generosity of Spirit reflected the divine life of the one who humbled himself to share our nature. Doug carried a light, and it caught our attention, as light always will. And for that light that he carried, I give God profound thanks and praise.

----The Reverend A. Robert Hirschfeld, Grace Church, Amherst

And finally ......

From Our Reunion Book

Many of the details of Doug Wilson's personal life, his career and his remarkable accomplishments were chronicled in a special obituary in the spring 2008 issue of Amherst and in John McDermott's moving "In Memory" piece in the 2008 summer issue of Amherst. Reference is also made to the Reverend A. Robert Hirschfeld's moving homily to Doug at the funeral service on May 9,2008—all are available on the college's website.

Doug undoubtedly would not have subscribed to or written any of what follows. Had he written it, it would have been far more entertaining, metaphorical and witty for sure and certainly not focused on him. After all, he was a listener, an inquirer, someone interested in others, their lives, their successes, their challenges. He was open-hearted, accepting, and always curious, a great conversationalist. He was secure in what he knew and who he was and, consequently, a comfortable "easy" friend and companion. He was always able to provide insightful angles on what he saw and usually through a lens tinged with humor, that dry, very dry, clever wit.

Douglas Wilson showed early promise at Amherst when he won the Armstrong Prize for his writing during the freshman year (he later was awarded the Moseley, Corbin and Bowles Prizes). In 1961 with senior year on the horizon, he was chosen to serve as the Chairman of the Amherst Student , arguably Amherst's highest undergraduate honor. Later Doug earned a master's degree in international studies at Tufts University before launching a most successful career in journalism with the Providence Journal. On August 7,1974 he was the first newsperson to report Richard Nixon's decision to resign as President of the United States, which earned Doug the Merriman Smith Memorial Award from the White House Correspondents' Association. Classmate Dick Todd has written that "Doug Wilson represented the face of journalism at its best, and so contrary to the popular image of that much-maligned trade. Unlike some of those vain, brash types we see on television, he was quiet, thoughtful, and self-effacing." C. Fraser Smith, a colleague of Doug's at the Providence Journal in the 1960's and 1970's (more recently with the Baltimore Sun and senior Baltimore National Public Radio news analyst) who was interviewed for this essay, stated "Doug's reporting was good, clean, and straightforward."

Doug Wilson's service to the college from 1975 until his retirement in 2001 is well-known. He became Secretary for Public Affairs in 1977 and was editor of the college's alumni magazine for 25 years. He wrote extensively, not only about those who grew Amherst to the college it is today but about contemporary political figures that interested him. Upon his retirement, and even as his illnesses diminished his physical strengths, he became determined to complete, edit, and see published a final work, an anthology of Amherst College. He entitled it Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College, which tells the story of Amherst through Doug's own essays (he wrote 8 of the 28) and those of graduates, the College's faculty, staff, and friends. Indeed, Doug completed his task and the book was published by Amherst College Press in December 2007 for which he received an award by the Amherst Historical Society shortly before his death. In his review of Passages in Amherst, Cullin Murphy 74, wrote about Doug's service to the college and its great tradition of putting high value on self-expression through the written word. Murphy said "Doug Wilson embodied good writing and playful urbanity in the course of a long career at Amherst.. .Wilson's handiwork can be seen not only in the college's official reports and publications but also in smaller embellishments, like the deft citations that accompany honorary degrees."

Doug loved carpentry and restoring old furniture. In fact quite a number of the fine pieces in the Wilsons' home on Pomeroy Lane in South Amherst were Doug's handiwork. He not only designed a significant addition to the house that became the living or family room but stained the paneling and painted the balance of the room "Scarlet O'Hara" red.

Some knew that Doug had a serious interest in the visual arts. He took an undergraduate studio art course at Amherst and then later in life took an "open" evening studio class at the college that enabled him to work again with oils until the Parkinson's made painting too difficult. Many more knew of Doug as cartoonist. He often chose political figures and sometimes even bosses as subjects to caricature in quick sketches drawn on napkins at meals or on scraps of paper at meetings. Doug's wife, Sherry, reports that almost all of these wonderful drawings were immediately destroyed, so few remain. Fraser Smith has vivid memories of some of these masterpieces and can still describe them in detail.

Sherry reports that Doug so loved Ralph Waldo Emerson that he financed the acquisition of a bust of the philosopher poet by the sale of a small antique gun (a Smith and Wesson "lemon squeezer") purchased by his grandfather, a Democratic congressman from Evansville, Indiana, to protect his family against the Ku Klux Klan.

Doug's musical interests after Amherst were wide|y eclectic. His favorites were Johnny Cash and Beethoven. Not surprisingly, at Doug's retirement, his office staff gave him a full set of Beethoven's symphonies on compact disc.

Doug preferred mountain vacations to the seashore. He especially enjoyed the Adirondacks, Lake Placid, and Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Sherry recounts that their son Jay has clear and fond memories of his father taking him fishing at dawn when Jay was 9 or 10. On a visit to Baltimore some years ago, Doug surprised me with his keen skills at tree and plant identification on a woods walk we took near our home. Sherry notes that Doug's love of trees and shrubs was a long standing one as he planted more than a dozen trees and shrubs at their South Amherst property, most of which survive today and some of which shade the street and unfortunately even some of his beloved roses.

Doug was very concerned about nuclear war and nuclear power. Upon retirement he did volunteer work for the American Friends Service Committee in Northampton. This deep concern also evidenced itself in an op-ed piece he wrote on nuclear power for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

In my communications with Sherry, there were a couple of related things she says made Doug especially happy during his student days and then in 1975 the year he returned to the college. The first was the decision by Phi Psi to abandon the traditional fraternity rush and substitute a sign-up sheet to recruit members of which Doug was one in the first year of the new policy. The other was the decision by the college to abolish fraternities entirely which was not a popular view of Amherst alumni at the time.

What remained most important to Doug, however, were his beloved wife, Sherry, and his children—Jay, Emily and Sam, all of whom have grown up to be charming and talented adults and are carrying on Doug's legacies.

----Alex "Sandy" Short '62

-
Wilson
Doug with Sandy Short