Rudy G. Wilson: The American who was a true African

Rudy G. Wilson (June 17, 1935 – December 4, 2017)

My great benefactor, Rudy Wilson just passed on in the US. He was 82 years old.

Great man. Large heart. Patron. Educationist. Spirit of Africa-America Renaissance. Lover of all things literary and cultural. First elected African American President of the School Board in Edwardsville, Illinois. First African American to teach in an all-white school in Claremont. Silent but effective revolutionary.

II

I first came into contact with Dr. Wilson in year 2001, courtesy of a special invitation organised by Ron Schaefer (Professor of Linguistics at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville), through his former student, Francis Egbokhare, himself Professor of Linguistics at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. As Assistant Provost for Social and Cultural Diversity, Rudy Wilson signed a letter which offered me a generous residency as Visiting Scholar and Poet to SIUE. That formal invitation and experience turned out to be the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between at least two generations of researchers across the Atlantic, between UI and SIUE, over fifteen years of intercultural and academic exchanges comprising anthropologists, literary scholars, geographers, linguists, historians, librarians, philosophers and physicists, and by extension, a host of graduate students from UI. Rudy Wilson was both a pull and push factor. My first stay in Edwardsville as visiting scholar and poet was at Cougar village, the graduate student lodging facility. Rudy became my patron and father; the father I had lost in 1975 suddenly resurrected twenty-six years after, not as a goldsmith, but as a path-smith and smoothner, one who was ready to do anything for my comfort. Rudy simply took me for his lost but found son for the six months I spent in that beautiful community.

III

Soon after my departure from Illinois in December 2001, the UI-SIUE partnership, spearheaded by Schaefer and Egbokhare, received the boost of an extensive grant, the award of a multidisciplinary scholarship to the joint institutional proposal under the Colleges and Universities Affiliation Program (CUAP) which lasted three consecutive years (2002 to 2004). It was in those years that I became even greatly bonded to Rudy and all members of his family. For a month each year, I made Rudy's house on Gerber Drive my own home, organising poetry readings and parties at every opportunity when the weather was fair. My friends from the other side of the Mississippi – Obi Nwakanma and spouse, Mira Tanna, Rasheed Na’ Allah, Kimberly Ady and Gregorio – surely found a great spirit in my African American mentor.  Rudy never tired of my need to visit libraries, museums, friends, and bars. We were in fact a pair at a bar called Stagger Inn. He also saved me from two embarrassing situations, one of which was life-threatening. I travelled with Rudy to places, meeting a number of his close and childhood friends. One of his friends, equally impressive and deeply versed in African and American history of relations is Marcus, Marcus Ahmed who we visited on a memorable occasion in his majestic Chicago home in 2003.

IV

Rudy Wilson visited Nigeria. He was a guest to our team in the University of Ibadan. But he went far to establish himself as master storyteller, a huge impression on a number of pupils in selected nursery and primary schools in the city. He was at Olayombo’s primary school (Sonbeam Preparatory) in Bodija to dramatise folk stories told to him by surviving children of African American freed men and women from slavery times. He took the name “Omowale” as a mark of his cultural integration, symbolic as it was, into Africa's Nigeria. If I missed America in the age of Trump, what I longed for was the mid-western large heartedness of Rudy Wilson, and that of my other mentor, Eugene Redmond, the official Poet Laureate of East St. Louis, father of Treasure Williams, the accomplished poet and motivational speaker.

V

Rudy was a great competitor. In order for him to remain agile, as he told me, he needed to play computer and card games that test retention, vocabulary build, reflex and agility. His favourite was Word Twister, a game that I later got addicted to on account of numerous sparring sessions.

VI

My third child arrived while I was in Rudy Wilson’s house on September 14. With great affection, we named her in absentia as Amy, in association with Rudy’s own daughter who was away in medical school. Eight days after, Amy was Yorubanised as Amiola and sent back to Ibadan as a memento of absence and arrival. Rudy read widely about African naming ceremonies. Then, he drove me to a small neighborhood called Manchester, on the outskirts of St Louis, Missouri, where we bought assorted African foodstuffs for the naming ceremony on September 21. LaVernne, Rudy's doting wife was great at cooking, homely and ever-present and radiant with love.

VII

It is these memories of celebration, gumbo, rock, poetry and other celebrations that keep coming each time I sense the Rudy spirit around me, ever since Kola Tubosun broke the news. It sounded surreal but it is real. The man who lived for others, never dies. I will sorely miss Papa Rudy; the children have been missing him over a decade, always steering talks to the day we will all travel to visit Big Papa Rudy in Edwardsville. Our prayers and love are with LaVernn, his siblings and children and the extended family, in Edwardsville, Detroit, St. Louis, Utah, and other places. His memory is strong, always will be. Rest in perfect peace, Papa.

Remi Raji

Benin City

December 6, 2017

Published on:: 
December 6, 2017