William H. Ruffner Medal
Former Provost Wilson honored with Tech's Ruffner Medal
By Heather McElrath
Virginia Tech Spectrum April 28, 2000
A former star halfback on the 1952 National Championship football team. A Rhodes Scholar. President of two universities. For John Wilson, whose career is a legacy of service in the cause of an educated society, is being honored for helping lay the foundation for Virginia Tech rise into the 21st Century with a broader base and more balanced education program.
For his service and dedication to Virginia Tech as provost, John D. Wilson is being honored with the Ruffner Medal, the university's highest honor. The award will be conferred today at the Founders Day convocation.
The Board of Visitors selected Wilson, who served as Tech's executive vice president for academic affairs and provost from 1975-1982, because he is the "epitome of a scholar and a leader whose love of learning has permeated every facet of his life." He has been credited with "transforming Virginia Tech into a c o m p r e h e n s i v e university that values the arts and humanities along with the sciences and engineering, and by establishing the university's intellectual agenda as paramount."
Wilson left Tech to serve as president of Washington & Lee University until his retirement in 1995. He now lives in Blacksburg. Wilson is widely credited for his leadership in shepherding the private school through the transition from an all-male institution to a coeducational center of learning.
A straight talker, Wilson likens a university education to a conversation. "You can say that I have spent my career trying my best to assist in contriving the conditions where the level of conversation can rise"É. between the faculty and the students. Wilson said he is honored and humbled to be included in a list of distinguished past winners, such as T. Marshall Hahn Jr., Robert Pamplin, Clifton Garvin Jr., and Julian N. Cheatham.
"My reaction was one of astonishment," said Wilson of winning the award. "I had no idea that I could be thought to be mentioned with all the previous winners of the medal. I am pleased and flattered to have been chosen by the Board of Visitors for this outstanding recognition."
"John Wilson brought to this university an appreciation for the importance of the humanities and the value of serious scholarship, while promoting a sense of collegiality in the faculty," said Provost Emeritus John Perry who worked with Wilson from 1977-1983. Wilson was an honors graduate from Michigan State University where he earned a bachelor's degree in history. He was named to the first All-America football team and was a member of the Michigan State team that won the 1952 national championship.
After receiving a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, he served two years in the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer with the Strategic Air Command. In 1958, he returned to Michigan State to serve as assistant to the vice president of academic affairs. He then moved to the State University of New York to serve as assistant to the president.
Wilson then returned to Michigan State to help lead the Honors College, first as the assistant director and then as program director in 1965. That same year he earned his Ph.D. in English literature. From 1965-1969, Wilson also taught courses in Elizabethan literature as an assistant professor of English.
In 1968, he became president of Wells College, a private liberal arts college for women in New York. He served there until 1975 when he joined Virginia Tech. In a letter to Wilson, Tech President Charles Steger wrote, "Virginia Tech would not be the comprehensive university that is today had it not been for your vision and leadership in setting the intellectual agenda of the university as its first provost."