Former mayor, councilman Clyde Wilson of Columbia dies

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 | 10:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:21 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 31, 2010
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Former Columbia mayor Clyde Wilson died Tuesday. He was 83. This slideshow contains pictures of Wilson from the Missourian's archives.

This story has been modified to correct Clyde Wilson's birthplace.

COLUMBIA — Clyde Wilson, an active member of Columbia’s educational and political scene for nearly 40 years, died at his home on Tuesday morning. He was 83.

Over the years local newspapers reported how he brought a fine balance to Columbia’s City Council from 1971 to 1981 with an ability to both compromise and stir things up a little.

Although he didn’t shy away from a liberal label, he gained and gave respect to people from a wide spectrum of political identities.

He served on the council while managing a number of key roles in MU's anthropology department, raising a family of five with his wife, Betty, and occasionally taking over his son’s paper route.

He was widely known for his patience with phone calls and his visibility in the community. In the 1970s, Mr. Wilson told a Columbia reporter, “I can stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning and get up by 7:30. If you enjoy what you’re doing, it doesn’t really make much difference. I like politics, anthropology and my family, so it really isn’t hard.”

During his years in public office, he was able to put his job as a professor and department head first, almost always over matters of the city.

Clyde Wilson was born in Comanche County, Texas, near the small town of Proctor, when cotton was still ginned in his neighborhood. After he graduated from high school, he served in World War II.

After the war, and with the help of the G.I. bill, he became the first member of his family to attend college.

He studied anthropology at the University of Texas, then pursued a doctoral degree at the University of Michigan where he met his wife.

He finished his doctorate in anthropology at UCLA, then took a job on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in New Mexico from 1958 to 1960. He and Betty had two children there before he accepted a position at MU.

Mr. Wilson entered Columbia’s political scene when he organized the first teacher sit-ins to protest the Vietnam War during the 1965-66 school year.

By 1970, he was running for a seat in Congress against incumbent Richard Ichord, a supporter of the Vietnam War.

During the campaign, Mr. Wilson gave Missouri a taste of the political style he would later display at the local level.

Later, he told the Missourian about his unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I did it on two conditions," he said in August 1982. "One was that we would run to win, even though we knew it was hopeless. The other was that the campaign not be limited to the issue of the war."

In 1971, he took the next step in his political involvement by seeking a place on the City Council from the Fourth Ward.

He won and served one term before the city was divided into six wards. By the time he ran for mayor in 1979, Mr. Wilson had been a Sixth Ward representative for nearly five years.

During his tenure on the council, he made a case for paying council members an annual salary, developing the Columbia Mall and revitalizing downtown. His work foreshadowed Columbia's destiny as a park-and-trail-friendly city.

Though he didn’t win them all over, he ultimately won the trust of his constituents and his colleagues.

In 1976, he was serving on the council with Pat Barnes, his political opposite. Barnes, representing the First Ward, once told a local reporter, “His philosophy differs almost completely from mine. He’s a liberal and I’m conservative. I have a great deal of respect for him because he always explains his votes in a way that makes sense.”

Perhaps Mr. Wilson’s longest and arguably biggest crusade on the council was the push to improve deteriorating neighborhoods.

He introduced the first of his housing plans for the city in 1973. He proposed that Columbia require housing inspections and occupancy permits for all residential properties.

Though plans for the “Wilson Ordinance” failed twice in the council, and a number of revisions were floated over the next five years, a measure was finally approved in March 1978.  

While Mr. Wilson was a teacher of anthropology, he was also a student of politics.

During a meeting of the Pachyderms, a local Republican organization, in 1971, he compared his first six months on the council to “knocking over a beehive in a cactus garden — you are afraid to move and afraid to be still.”

In March 1979, after eight years in office, he shared a piece of his earned wisdom: “I think what I have learned … is the art of compromise, the art of negotiation, the realization that if I can move a little bit in the direction I want to, it’s better than not moving at all in that direction.”

He also focused on ideas that were more progressive than the times. He advocated energy conservation and was a buffer in race relations.

After serving four terms on the council and one term as mayor, he decided he would not run for public office again but still remain active in community affairs.

He was appointed to several boards and committees during the next 30 years, including energy and environment commissions, the “Columbia Tomorrow Committee” — a 20-year blueprint for growth in the city — and the Human Rights Commission.

Those who worked with him say his familiar presence in Columbia impacted the city and the university in lasting ways.

Mayor Darwin Hindman, who has served as Columbia’s mayor for 15 years, said he is a great admirer of Mr. Wilson. The two knew each other for more than 40 years and supported each other's campaigns.

“He played an important role in Columbia becoming what it is today,” Hindman said.

Former council member Karl Kruse called Mr. Wilson his political mentor, and council member Karl Skala said he valued his advice.

He served as Skala’s campaign treasurer both in 2007 and during his current campaign.

Skala said Mr. Wilson was a man of great depth and wisdom.

“You could tell a lot about him from the art and books in his home,” Skala said. “I miss him already.”

Evidence of Mr. Wilson’s reach in Columbia can be seen in the city planning he helped implement and in the example he set with his public leadership.

The span of his life in Columbia has been archived in more than 40 years of local newspaper clippings. They reveal the character of a man who was able to view public service through the lens of anthropology.

In March 1981, he summed up the political philosophy he set for himself this way: “I’ve always thought that the world could be a better place and I should be trying to do something about it.”

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Karl Skala March 31, 2010 | 4:40 a.m.

I spoke with Clyde on Monday, asked his advice, and he smiled as he gave it. I do miss him already. My condolences to the entire family.

(Report Comment)
Barbara Hoppe March 31, 2010 | 8:08 a.m.

Clyde also served on the present Downtown Leadership Council and was Treasurer of both of my City Council campaigns. What a wonderful human being and mentor. We will all miss him greatly.

(Report Comment)
peggy king March 31, 2010 | 8:17 a.m.

Although I was destined to never complete my education at UMC, I have always remembered Clyde Wilson as the ONE teacher who was able to really inspire me in college. And that was almost 40 years ago. I thank him for that.

(Report Comment)
John Clark March 31, 2010 | 8:26 a.m.

I sent the following message to Clyde last week.

Dear Clyde,

As you may have sensed, I have often been frustrated by your approach to issues over the past twenty years that I have been active in local civic affairs. But I want you to know that that frustration pales in comparison to the gratitude that I feel for you for laying the structural foundation for neighborhood influence in Columbia civic affairs. Without your leadership in the 70's in creating the City's neighborhood organization policies, we would not have been able to accomplish so much in the 90's and 00's and much more in the future. Thank you.

All the best,

John G. Clark

(Report Comment)
Bonnie Bourne March 31, 2010 | 9:43 a.m.

I first met Clyde Wilson when we moved to the sixth ward. Over the years we spend many hours collaborating on East Campus Neighborhood issues. Clyde was a mentor and a friend. I knew I could always call on him for advice and he would always listen and give me valuable advice. I loved his sense of humor as well as his knowledge on many topics, including but certainly not limited to politics. I am glad to have counted him as a good friend and mentor for many years. Bonnie Bourne

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