When Donald Wilson came to Baltimore to be dean of the University of Maryland's medical school in 1991, a lot of people turned aside. Murmuring started right away. Shock, displeasure, uncertainty, disappointment - grumblers privately expressed misgivings even as public celebrations welcomed the arrival of the nation's first African-American dean at a predominantly white medical school.
"Someone said, `This is too early.' We heard a lot of doom and gloom saying this would be the end of the medical school," said Dr. Elijah Saunders, a professor of medicine who is also African-American. "But we were used to hearing those kinds of things, so we didn't make a big deal about it."
The grumblers had not reckoned on a black leader who would come not to represent a past or a point of view or a race. Instead, he had come to bring a sea change to a school whose reputation had never breached the first rank of American medical colleges, where the budget persistently fell under the legislature's axe and whose proximity to the mighty Johns Hopkins University left faculty perpetually queasy.
Other people's doubts or prejudices didn't concern him.
"I don't think about failure," Wilson says coolly. "I figured unless people spent their time trying to make my life miserable, I could accomplish what I wanted to do here."
This year, after almost a decade under his direction, the School of Medicine is widely recognized as one of the top 10 public medical colleges in the country. Research funding flows into its labs, and Maryland has stepped out from Hopkins' shadow, no longer the understudy or simply the state's medical training ground.
How Donald Wilson guided the institution into the ranks of the best during a revolution in managed care while some people balked and the state hacked at its budget is only one indication of an impressive man's mettle.
How he did it as an African-American is a story he would rather not discuss. Hard work, independence, intelligence, self-respect - like his father before him, this is the account he prefers.
The fact is, his father, Rivers Wilson, left Bishopsville, S.C., during the 1920s to escape a lynching.
Joining the larger migration of African-Americans north, he went to New York to work on railroads and soon called for his wife to join him in Worcester, Mass. The day he met her there, according to family lore, they pooled their money and counted 20 cents between them.
Factory bosses refused to hire African-Americans and even the best educated could find jobs only as janitors or domestic servants. So Rivers Wilson looked to be his own boss. With savings, he bought a truck and started picking cans, disposing of ash from coal-burning furnaces and scrapping rubbish.
He became the town's trash collector. The money he saved he invested in real estate.
The day his first son came into the world, the Wilson's 10-year-old daughter, Rena, thought of a name: Donald Edward Wilson. It sounded dignified, rife with possibility, unlike any ancestor or near relation. It was something new and fine.
And not just Donald Edward Wilson, either. She thought: Dr. Donald Edward Wilson.
Everyone remembers the day he decided to become a physician. A doctor had come to the house to treat Donald for pneumonia, and after he left, the boy announced, from thenceforth, he would be the one who gave the shots.
"All I can say is he told our mother he wanted to be a doctor and just stuck it in his mind," Rena says. Donald was 5 years old.
Through the sixth grade, he maintained the highest grades of any classmates. But when the time came for students to think about advancing into the town's college prep schools or attending a vocational school, a well-meaning principal told Donald's parents that while the smartest children could attend prep school, the Wilson family would be wise to send their son to learn a trade.
Characteristically, when he reflects today, the dean sympathizes with the principal: "That was not racism," he insists. "That was what I call uninformed bias. He was concerned because at that time he thought the best thing you could do if you were black was to learn a good trade. He wasn't making a value judgment on me."
Nonetheless, Rivers sent his son to the town's prep school, North High, where Donald was one of only three blacks in a class of about 300. He made the right choice. Donald ran track, played football, basketball and tennis, became class treasurer and newspaper editor. In a school known for its rich ethnic blend of Armenians, Italians, Greeks, Irish and Yankees, the young man mixed easily.
"As kids we never thought of anyone as Yankee or Irish or Negro," said James Huntoon, a white classmate who double-dated with Wilson to the high school prom. "You either fit in or you didn't; you either played sports or you didn't. And Donald played. We never thought of anyone as black or Negro. He didn't either. It was never an issue."