Alumni Awards 2019: Dick Wilson receives Alumni Service Award

Celebrating decades of help for UAlberta that quietly occurred outside the spotlight

Helen Metella - 17 September 2019

Absolutely everyone who steps foot on the campus of the University of Alberta experiences the wise and wide influence of Dick Wilson, QC, whether it's happening in plain view or from behind the scenes.

Wilson, '74 BA, '75 LLB, is the 2019 recipient of the university's Alumni Service Award for extraordinary commitment, dedication and volunteer service to the university.

To those who use or simply admire the north campus's most striking landmark - the Physical Activity and Wellness Centre (PAW), with its cone-shaped walls and glassed-in two storey climbing facility and fitness centre - Wilson's influence resides in being one half of the alumni couple who ensured the popular resource was completed in 2015.

Wilson and his wife Carol ('74 BEd) made a $10 million donation to build the Wilson Climbing Centre and the Hanson Fitness and Lifestyle Centre, in honour of Carol Wilson's father, Sam.

"My father-in-law lost his father when he was 12 to a heart attack and the whole Hanson family had a history of hypertension, including Sam," said Wilson. "Sam grew up to be a medical doctor and became a firm believer in physical activity. He died at 78, but lived to an older age than all but one of his siblings. That's why the PAW Centre resonated. It reflected a value that's very dear to our families."

Less visible to the naked eye, but just as healthy an influence are Wilson's myriad contributions to how UAlberta functions as one of Canada's strongest universities. His assistance has been delivered during 20 years of volunteer service, which included being a member of the Alumni Council, its president, and an active member of the Board of Governors, the university's Senate, Friends of U of A, and in his current post as a mentor at the ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service (VMS).

Among the scores of projects and background affairs where he's had a leading role are fundraising initiatives; search committees for the university president, deans and senior scholars; the Senate's Task Force on Student Engagement; the Foote Field Lounge project; the Quad redevelopment plans; and the Millennium and Alumni Advantage scholarships.

"Perhaps no other volunteer has had a greater impact," wrote the group of eminent Edmontonians who nominated Wilson for the Alumni Award.

Wilson's abiding affection for the university took hold early. "I grew up on 117th Street, right across the street," he said. "I played on the campus as a kid, I went to Golden Bears and Pandas games. I rode my bike through campus on the way to Garneau School."

Although his father was the Oxford-trained head of the Department of Medicine at the U of A and fully supported his studying abroad, Wilson did a combined BA/LLB at UAlberta, specializing in economics for his undergraduate degree. He fondly remembers the late political science professor, Jim Lightbody, and economics professor Allan Warrack as outstanding teachers who taught him "how society works, how it all fits together."

As a lawyer, Wilson practised civil litigation at Parlee McLaws LLP and its predecessor firms for 37 years, also serving as managing partner. While his career was highly satisfying, volunteering at the U of A amidst energetic, focused and fascinating people who brought intellectually stimulating problem solving from vastly different fields, provided a refreshing change. Affection for his fellow volunteers keeps him coming back, says the down-to-earth and personable Wilson.

"One thing about litigation, while you're building your own case you're also trying to destroy the other side. It is people in conflict and can be highly adversarial. As a volunteer, you have a purpose about something that's of lasting value and benefit to society. It's that Boy Scout mentality of leaving the campground better than you found it."

Wilson enjoyed it even when exchanges of ideas required very long, albeit robust, discussions. "I'm a firm believer that collective wisdom from a large bunch of people is better than the alternatives."

Reluctant to cite one project or accomplishment that makes him proudest, Wilson's eyes light up when he describes his latest volunteer involvement, as a mentor with VMS, in which he assists entrepreneurs who have a connection to the university.

His current mentees include a group of lawyers who've developed a software system that easily manages the mountains of paperwork involved in commercial transactions, and an African immigrant with a socially conscious startup that creates high-end garments from textiles created in Ethiopia and Uganda.

The now-retired lawyer relishes the challenge of helping them tackle problems that match his skills but keep him on his toes by affording him new experiences. "It's really cool, because while I can pass on some business experience, I also am learning new things, like women's fashion."

The Alumni Awards will be bestowed on September 19, 2019 at Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.

This article originally appeared on the Faculty of Law's news site.