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Obituary: Without Earl Wilson, there would be no Gateway Classic

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 31, 2010 - "It's more than a football game, it's a way of life."

That was the motto of the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation and the maxim that its founder, Earl Wilson Jr., lived by.

"It's what he said every time he spoke about the Classic," said Vitilas (Veto) Reid, the Gateway Classic's board treasurer, retired St. Charles postmaster, and Mr. Wilson's friend since the two were children growing up near downtown St. Louis.

Mr. Wilson, who recently retired as president and CEO of the foundation, died at his home in Richmond Heights Friday morning (Oct. 29) of pancreatic cancer. He was 78.

His Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, preceded by visitation at 10 a.m.

Building the Gateway Classic

The Gateway Classic, an annual football game between historically black colleges and universities, began in St. Louis in 1994 after a group from Indiana, the home of the Circle City Classic since 1983, brought the concept to St. Louis. They took the net proceeds from the football tournament back with them to Indiana.

"That didn't make sense to me," Mr. Wilson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year.

Then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. agreed and enlisted Mr. Wilson's help to establish a St. Louis Classic to fund college scholarships for African-American students.

At its inception, the organization gave $1,500 to the first Gateway Classic. By 1998, Mr. Wilson had grown the scholarship fund to $40,000 and established a general scholarship program to provide full, four-year scholarships to African-American youth from the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.

The foundation's scholarships are unusual: they are given to students whose grade point averages are a C-plus.

"Usually kids with a "C" average fall by the wayside," Reid said. "But some of our kids graduate cum laude from college.

"Earl was so grateful when young people would come back to say 'thank you'."

There has been plenty to say 'thank you' for: During the organization's 16-year history, the foundation has raised more than $2.6 million to send more than a hundred students to college. More than 60 of those scholarship recipients have now graduated.

"At first, I was drawn to the newness of it," said John Shivers, Gateway Classic 15-year board member and current president. "But once I got there and saw the mission, that the scholarships are for average students, I was hooked.

"If not for Earl, there would be no Gateway Classic," added Shivers, assistant vice president of retail banking at Midwest BankCentre. "He got pleasure out of seeing what it did for the kids and the community. He was a perfectionist and he gave the Classic its staying power.

More Than A Football Game

"He treated it like it was his own child; that's what made it successful," Shivers added. "He knew that it needed nurturing and focus and he provided that. He breathed 'Gateway Classic' 24/7."

That's because the Gateway Classic really is much more than a football game. It's a weekend-long celebration that features well known names in music and show business -- Glady's Knight, Cedric "The Entertainer" -- and a halftime 'Battle of the Bands', often the undisputed highlight of the event.

But the foundation has a busy year-round schedule of fundraising and community events. There are golf tournaments, basketball shoot-outs, baseball, a boxing showcase, pageants; concerts, holiday meals for people in need, an after-school program and adult day care, lunches, dinners and receptions, and the Walk of Fame that honors local African Americans in a path that surrounds the foundation's building.

First Career

Mr. Wilson was born in St. Louis on Oct. 9, 1932. He grew up on 15th Street, just five blocks from the $3 million facility that he was instrumental in building at 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in 2002. It now bears his name, along with one block of 20th Street, which is now Earl Wilson Plaza. The building stands not too far from the Edward Jones Dome where the Gateway Classic football game is played each year.

Mr. Wilson graduated from Vashon High School and received his B.S. in education from Lincoln University in Jefferson City in 1957. It's where he met and married his first wife, Margie Black Wilson, who died in 1995.

He was in ROTC in college and following graduation, he entered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a captain. He was subsequently stationed in Germany for five years. In 1962, he attended the U.S Army NATO Officer PIO School in Paris. As his commitment was ending and civil rights era was taking hold, he learned that IBM Corp. was hiring black salesmen; he applied for a job and was hired in 1963.

He quickly proved his worth.

"I had a bad territory on the north side and no one had ever made money there," Mr. Wilson told the Post-Dispatch in 2009. "I decided I was really going to work it, and I went into all the little, dark, dirty-looking places that the other salesmen wouldn't go into, and I made my quota every year. After four years I got promoted."

He stayed with IBM for 30 years, including six years in Paris as their director of operations, and stints in Stamford, Conn. and Washington, D.C. He received numerous awards during his tenure, including "Manager of the Year".

Toward the end of his IBM career, Mr. Wilson was loaned to his alma mater to help rescue the school from financial straits. He and Henry Givens, president of Harris-Stowe State University, are credited with returning Lincoln University to solvency.

Shortly thereafter, he retired from IBM, formed a consulting firm, and was quickly named vice president and director of marketing for the St. Louis 1994 U.S. Olympic Festival. That was the same year that he start his journey as "Mr. Gateway Classic".

Putting Flesh On Words

In a 2007 interview with Commerce Magazine, Dr. Donald Suggs, publisher of the St. Louis American, lauded Mr. Wilson's efforts.

"Earl has made extraordinary contributions and made the most of his business background," Dr. Suggs said. "He's been steadfast in his commitment and we've realized great dividends. He took his ideas and put flesh on the words. I personally appreciate what he's done for our community."

Mr. Wilson received many community service awards, including the Mokan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Promethians Distinguished Service Award, 100 Black Men Outstanding Citizen Award, Missouri St. Louis Athletic Club Special Achievement Award, Lifetime Achievement Teachers Award and the Fair St. Louis Award.

His prolific board service included the Regional Convention and Visitor's Commission, St. Louis Downtown Partnership, Harris-Stowe Business Leadership Council, Ben Carson Scholarship Board, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, William L. Clay Scholarship and Research Fund and President of Promethians, Inc. He also served as general chairman of the United Negro College Fund and on the St. Louis County Human Rights Commission.

Mr. Wilson received honorary doctorates from Lincoln University, Harris-Stowe State University and the University of Arkansas. When he retired earlier this year, the City of St. Louis prepared a resolution that acknowledged his many achievements.

Unfinished Business

Despite his tremendous success, Mr. Wilson was never quite satisfied with the results of his second career, his legacy.

He yearned for a full Dome - 66,000 - for the Classic.

Attendance topped out at around 50,000, but each year he of unshakeable faith and determination simply said, "We'll try again next year."

Mr. Wilson is survived by his wife, Billie Wilson, whom he married in 1997; four daughters, Denise Wilson of Washington; Stacey Wilson of Paris; Kimberly Wilson of Portland, Ore., and Theresa Anderson of Richmond Heights; five sons, Richard Gray, of St. Louis, who now heads the Gateway Classic; Steven M. Anderson, of St. Louis, Michael Anderson, of Los Angeles, David Anderson, of McKinney, Texas, and Bill Anderson of Arlington, Texas; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Visitation for Mr. Wilson will be at 10 a.m. on Sat., Nov. 6, at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, 701 North Eighteenth Street, followed immediately by Mass at 11 a.m.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

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