November 1, 2011

Former colleagues of the late Laurence Wilson, longtime music director and chairman of the Music and Art Department at Borough of Manhattan Community College, extol him as a consummate musician, outstanding educator, innovative administrator and beloved friend who shared his talent with audiences worldwide and his knowledge and support with students and associates.

“He made my soul feel at home in the world,” said one former deputy.

Professor Wilson, a classical pianist who was retired, died Sept. 3 at age 79 after battling cancer for six years.

Rising rapidly from humble beginnings, he earned bachelor’s and master of science degrees at The Juilliard School, made his debut at Carnegie Hall and performed at top-ranked music centers around the world — giving concerts and lectures in the People’s Republic of China at the invitation of diplomats, and playing in London’s Wigmore Hall, a platform for the most sought-after soloists and chamber musicians.

Wilson soared to those heights from Chicago’s south side, where he was born in 1932, at the tail end of the Great Depression.

There were early indications that music would be his life’s passion. His sister, Janet Carter, a retired teacher living in San Diego, recounted an incident that occurred when Wilson was in the third grade.

“The teacher was honoring another child who took piano lessons. She asked the child to play for the class. My brother said he told the teacher, ‘Well, that was nothing, I can play better than that.’ The teacher asked him, ‘Are you, too, studying the piano?’ He said, ‘No,’ and went and played with both hands. The teacher called my mom. She said, ‘Do you know this child needs to study piano?’ ”

Laurence Wilson was the only boy of four children in a struggling family. “The only piano was a little child’s piano my mom had bought for my sister,” Carter said. “My mom said my sister never got a chance to play with it.”

Their grandmother encouraged their mother – an office worker — to educate her children and helped her to buy a piano for Wilson. “My grandmother said, “This is something we have to do,’” Carter recalled. As a student at Wendell Phillips Academy, his high school in Chicago, he played the piccolo and the French Horn in the school band.

After high school, Wilson attended the Cosmopolitan School of Music in downtown Chicago. Some of his music teachers felt his mother’s sacrifice was too great, Carter said, contending that, “as a person of color he would never make it in classical music.”

In a tribute to Wilson, Carlos Linares, an associate professor in the BMCC Computer Information Systems Department, and a close friend, elaborated on the issue.

When they first met in the fall of 1986, Linares said, Wilson “was a veteran of many internecine political skirmishes and I was a neophyte in these jousts. Scheherazade-like, his thousand and one tales contained important lessons and strategies to help a junior faculty member ford the scabrous waters of college politics. Many of his stories had academic settings, others came from more recondite places in his heart and from a far away America I had read about but not experienced.

“Many of these narratives chronicled the domestic environment which forged him,” Linares went on. “He was fortunate to have had a mother of vision, a woman whose humble vocation did not become an impediment to forging opportunities that would afford her children a piece of the American dream.”

Wilson’s father, Linares said, felt otherwise — thinking it “problematic that the mother was filling their children’s head with crazy notions like going to high school and college.

He thought that reading and writing were enough for a black person to survive in Chicago. One day dad brought home a shoeshine kit for little Larry. He thought it would be cute to see him generate some money as a precocious bootblack.

“The mother immediately opposed that plan and declared that while she was alive none of her children would engage in demeaning, menial tasks,” Linares continued. “Keeping true to this promise, she sacrificed for years to pay for very expensive music classes for Laurence. Many of his teachers would advise her to put that money to better use since such a high investment in the musical education of a black child would not necessarily lead to a meaningful concert career in the classical music world of 1940s America.”

“Laurence Wilson,” he went on, “was an individual forged by contradictions of our great but imperfect society; the American catechism branded his soul with the best and worst of its teachings. It was a gift to have read from those pages.

“One of Professor Wilson’s most exhilarating and satisfying experiences was his 1970s concert tour through various cities in China,” Linares said. “He was very happy to have had the opportunity to share his musical talent with audiences so far removed from his South Chicago origins.”

His sister underscored Wilson’s determination to succeed. “He beat the odds,” she said.

“Nothing deterred him. He was a very self-disciplined person. He practiced every day, five, six hours a day, up until two months before he died. He was planning another recital, so he was honing his skills. Music was his whole life … his wife, child and his best friend.” Wilson was once engaged to an opera singer who was a graduate of Juilliard, but she died, Carter said.

Wilson joined the U.S. Air Force in 1952, served for four years and reached the rank of staff sergeant. He was part of the Air Force band, and while stationed in Rapid City, SD, played flute in the Rapid City Symphony Orchestra.

Relocating to New York in 1956, Wilson enrolled at Juilliard. He joined BMCC in 1970, got tenure in 1977 and was a music professor for 30 years. He chaired the Music and Art Department for half that time. After he retired in 2006 he was active as a philanthropist, supporting such organizations as the Juilliard Alumni, the Harlem School of the Arts, the Audubon Society and Public Radio.

He gave piano lessons out of a studio on 45th Street in Manhattan, where he lived before he was admitted to New York Presbyterian Hospital in August 2011. He died in his sleep at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx.

“His mind stayed clear to the very end,” Carter said. “He loved teaching, and he loved students. If he could say something to them it would be: discipline and perseverance. Set a goal early in life and stick with it.” The only objective he didn’t achieve was conducting.

Active and retired faculty and staff recounted Wilson’s attributes. Professor Rochelle Weinstein, a former department chair, commented: “Larry Wilson was a classy, elegant and kind gentleman, a scholar and a bravura performer. During the six years in the 1980s that I was his deputy for art he made my soul feel at home in the world. He saw things and did good with a clarity and serenity that served me as a comfort and guide that persists to this day.”

Janice Krigger, the Music and Art department’s secretary, said, “Professor Laurence Wilson was one superb human being. As chairperson, he ran the department … with the wisdom of Solomon. Many people within and outside the BMCC community sought his advice on various matters.”

“In addition to his tremendous love of music,” Krigger said, “he was a voracious reader who loved to share books or magazine and newspaper articles with others. His sense of humor was unparalleled. I could go on indefinitely, but for now I’ll say, I miss my friend.”

Doug Anderson, a conductor who accompanied him in several BMCC Downtown Symphony Orchestra concertos and who succeeded him as chairman, said Wilson served 15 years in that position, “making him the longest serving chair of the department. He was an excellent teacher, a superb pianist and a wonderful and helpful colleague. He was also a great source of strength and support to me personally.”

“As a musician he was flexible, always willing to lend a hand,” Anderson added. “When my wife was pregnant with my son, I asked professor Wilson to record the beginning of Mozart’s A Major Donato to play to him in utero, knowing that his special pianistic touch in this piece would be exactly right for my developing child. He was a pleasure to work with, professionally and musically; a special friend, and I do, and will, miss him greatly.”

James Bartow, an associate adjunct, knew Wilson for 30 years. He said he had a “world-class reputation” and was able to deal with “the music and art personalities, who are not always the same.”

Retired professor Leonard Goings said: “Larry was everything that one would want a music professor to be. He was a consummate musician, an outstanding educator, an innovative administrator, and most important of all, he was a nice guy. He got along with people. Everybody loved him. The students loved him. He was a good friend, and I’m going to miss him.”

Professor Harry Meltzer, the department’s current chairman, said Wilson played with the Downtown Symphony Orchestra even when he retired, characterizing him thus: “A wonderful musician. He had a beautiful sound on the instrument. He was just really an elegant performer, and he never took any nonsense from his students.”

Adjunct professor Charles S. Brown — a singer, composer and arranger of vocal music who teaches the BMCC choir — said Wilson was accompanist for his classes for “a whole semester” when it was difficult to find one. “He was supportive in so many ways,” Brown said. He remembered telephoning Wilson at 2 a.m. and having long  conversations.“He would say, ‘I’m just getting going.’”

“We had similar interests,” Brown said. “He knew a lot about music and black culture and politics, and he knew a lot about the college because he’d been there so long. He was just a comfortable person to be with.”

Lyubov Shumova, a senior lab technician in the department, said when she began working at BMCC four years after arriving in the United States as a refugee, “I could count on his wise advice and support in any situation I found to be complicated. There were times when I felt overwhelmed. With his great sense of humor he would be able to lighten my mood.

“It was like an additional light on the days he was scheduled to teach,” Shumova continued. “We were enchanted when he played the piano. He was great with everything, with friendship, with music, with teaching. He was very fair and honest. I miss Larry very much and will love and remember him forever.”

Professor Wilson’s cremated remains are entombed at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island. In addition to Carter, he is survived by another sister, Nadine Powell, of Las Vegas, as well as nieces and nephews.