A permanent home: Enlarged quarters for the Wilson Center for Leadership

Celebrating the life and legacy of General Samuel V. Wilson was the order of the day on August 31 with the dedication of the expanded and renovated home of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest.

Students, faculty, staff, and many guests gathered on the front lawn of the Center to recognize the tireless work of Gen. Wilson; Dr. David Marion, the longtime director of the Center; and financial supporters of the Center’s mission. The large crowd in attendance that day was a sign of how many people Gen. Wilson and the Center have affected since its inception 15 years ago.

ribbon cutWhat we now know as the Wilson Center first was the brainchild of Gen. Wilson when he was still “just” a professor. He approached then-President Ralph Rossum about creating what he called a “Center for Excellence in Public Service” to aid students interested in a career in one of the many roles available in that field. Despite Rossum’s support for the idea and Wilson’s unexpected ascension to the presidency of Hampden-Sydney College, development of the Center was put on hold. Then President Wilson had more immediate concerns begging for his attention. However, the idea did not die.

Gen. Wilson says, “I did endeavor to keep the concept alive by discussing it with others, to include talking about it in faculty meetings and before local civic clubs. The Farmville Herald’s talented editor, Ken Woodley ’79, covered one of these local presentations and ran a favorable front-page article in one of the Herald’s Friday editions. Nonetheless, the idea of a Hampden-Sydney Center for Excellence in Public Service was stalling out—at least for the moment.”

What happened next was a bit of an aligning of the stars. President Wilson found among the faculty a professor with a similar vision, a similar passion for the intellectual development of young men, and a similar drive to succeed. As Gen. Wilson recounted at the dedication ceremony: “Then a faculty member with rich and varied ideas of his own stepped in with a proposed public service certificate program. The faculty approved his proposal, and we were off to the races. Things have not been the same since. Again, time will not permit me to list the many achievements in the College’s Leadership and Public Service programs arena for which this individual bears direct responsibility. Suffice it to say that the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest would not exist, and we would not be gathered here today, but for the organizational skill, creative imagination, and intellectual brilliance of this remarkable man.” That remarkable man was Dr. David E. Marion.

new wilson centerTogether, Gen. Wilson, Dr. Marion, and the entire staff of the Wilson Center have developed a multifaceted program to educate students about public service and to provide opportunities for students within political, public-policy, educational, governmental, and military organizations. As President Christopher Howard remarked at the dedication: “From the beginning the goal of the Wilson Center has been to create leadership and public affairs programs that would be competitive with the best of these programs in the country. It serves as an umbrella for a number of different programs and activities such as the Public Service and Military Leadership and National Security Studies programs, freshman pre-orientation and leadership programs, Society of ’91, and Army ROTC. Each year the Wilson Center hosts, sponsors, or co-sponsors 50 to 60 different events that cover a panoply of leadership and policy topics to engage our students, alumni, and greater community.”

Since 2007, the Wilson Center has taken residence in the Packer-Fulton House (which was built in 1926 as “Edgeworth”). This expansion includes a spacious lecture room, a seminar room, exhibition spaces, and two offices. These rooms add valuable space to the original building, which offered faculty and staff offices and a casual lounge that is popular with students.

Though this occasion marks the beginning of a new era in the life of the Wilson Center, it also gave the College and its supporters an occasion to celebrate the Center’s namesake. In doing so, President Howard said of Gen. Wilson: “Know that Hampden-Sydney College’s success stems from your effective leadership. But for your steady hand during a most turbulent time, the College might not have righted herself, survived, and then thrived. You touch lives that in turn touch other lives. I don’t believe you will ever or can ever fully appreciate how much you mean to this College, community, the Commonwealth, this great nation, or to the World.

“You are a soldier, statesman, educator, leader, friend, scholar, and fine human being.”