Frank Wilderson Jr. was getting ready to go home for the day when he got a call that about 60 black students had taken over Morrill Hall.
The students were trying to get University of Minnesota administrators to listen to their demands, which included creating an African-American studies department.
It was Jan. 14, 1969, less than nine months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and racial tension was building across the country.
"The campus was like a pot simmering on the stove," said Wilderson, 84. "And this was the night that it boiled over."
Wilderson, who at the time was one of about three black professors on the Twin Cities campus, helped advise the students that night and in the days following the takeover. He became instrumental in the formation of the U's first African-American and African Studies Department and helped shepherd it through its early years. In 1975, he became the university's first black vice president, overseeing the department of student affairs for more than a decade.
On Friday, Turning Point, a local organization that provides chemical dependency treatment, housing and other support services, will honor Wilderson in recognition of the contributions, most notably for his efforts to make the U a more hospitable campus for both black students and faculty and for his research of African-American mental health issues.
"In the late 60s, we were angry," said Peter Hayden, Turning Point's president and chief executive. "We didn't feel like anyone would listen to us. Frank listened. And we listened to him. He is a man that crossed a lot of boundaries, very important boundaries."
Calm to the situation
An educational psychologist, Wilderson had been recruited to the U a few years before the takeover to work on a study that involved students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Both he and his wife, Ida-Lorraine, also a psychologist, welcomed the chance to further their studies and moved their family to the Twin Cities.
While Wilderson was aware of the growing racial unrest on campus in the late 60s, the student takeover came as a surprise. But he was eager to help.
"From our time at Berkeley, Ida-Lorraine knew to bring Vaseline to put in the student eyes in case there was tear gas," Wilderson recalled. "It didn't come to that, but we were prepared."
Added Ida-Lorraine, "I think Frank brought calm to the situation," she said. "He got the students to see that they didn't want to turn it into a destructive situation."
After the takeover came to a peaceful end, university administrators were quick to tap Wilderson to chair a committee that would refine the students' ideas for an African-American studies department.
Afterward, he maintained a connection to the department, among the first in the country to be devoted to African-American and African studies.
John S. Wright, a professor English and Afro-American and African Studies and one of the students involved in the Morrill Hall takeover, said Wilderson made a significant contribution to the fledgling department by chairing a task force that examined its mission after community members and others complained its mission had strayed.
"Frank was a consummate professional educator who was deeply interested in staff and students of color and bringing them into the university," he said. "He had a cool head and was very difficult to rile up, which I think are very important leadership qualities."
At home in education
When university leaders tapped Wilderson to be vice president of student affairs, the vast department included: admissions, records, financial aid, housing, university police and recreational sports.
It also included the athletic department, which would eventually produce a scandal that led to Wilderson's departure from the post. An NCAA probe revealed the coordinator of the Office of Minority and Special Student Affairs, Luther Darville, was funneling money to athletes. He ultimately was indicted on federal swindling charges.
Wilderson always refuted Darville's claims that he knew about the payments, and returned to teaching in the College of Education for almost a decade. He retired in 1999.
Since that time, Wilderson has stayed busy. One of the founding members of the National Association of Black Psychologists, Wilderson and Ida-Lorraine, a former Minneapolis Public Schools teacher and principal, have continued to work in the psychology field. The couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in June.
He also continues to serve on the board of trustees for the University of St. Thomas and on the board of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
Hayden said that while Wilderson is probably known most locally for his contributions to the U, he's had a significant impact on the greater Twin Cities by being a role model for other black leaders.
"He's my mentor," Hayden said. "He's been there for me, for Turning Point, for so many in our community."
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469