Remembering Franklin Delano Wilson (1942–2020)


A front facing photo of Franklin Wilson. He is looking into the camera and smiling.
Franklin Delano Wilson (1942–2020)

Franklin Wilson, WSU PhD 1973 and William H. Sewell-Bascom professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, passed away in December 2020. Below, we hear from two WSU Sociology faculty members, Alair MacLean and Don Dillman, who wrote memory pieces in Franklin’s honor. Don served as the PhD chair for Franklin Wilson and Alair attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Franklin was a faculty member. Franklin Wilson’s many accomplishments and contributions to others are documented in this obituary released by Cress Funeral and Cremation Service in Madison.


By Don Dillman

I was saddened to learn recently of Frank’s passing, but that changed to a smile of thanks as I reflected on my pleasant discussions with him as he was working on his PhD nearly 50 years ago. He left a legacy for this department that I greatly admire.

Frank arrived in Pullman in 1971. Unfortunately, his arrival coincided with the University working its way through a significant crisis. In early 1970, students had marched on the WSU president’s office as part of a protest over the invasion of Cambodia that became part of the unpopular Vietnam War.

That action evolved into another protest and student strike that prevented the completion of spring semester classes. President Glenn Terrell was asked to meet a list of Black Student Demands for improving the situation of minorities at the University. The Demands had wide support within the student body. Under much pressure to resolve the strike, Terrell agreed to cancel two days of classes during the coming academic year so all students and faculty could participate in workshops on the causes and consequences of racism. That decision was immediately criticized by many alumni and state residents. Frank’s African American heritage and the fact that he had just completed military service in Vietnam as an infantry commander placed him in a potentially uncomfortable situation as he observed the University’s attempts to deal with an unpopular war and recover from the student strike.

My lasting memory of Frank is the quick and thoughtful way he focused on developing his sociological skills rather than discussions of the controversies that had enveloped the University. The Sociology department was quite proud of having attracted and educated numerous African American PhD’s, including Charles U. Smith, James Blackwell, William Julius Wilson, and others who were on their way to being future leaders of major sociological associations. Frank quickly proved that he was destined to become an academic leader in the same tradition.

As a relatively new (1969) faculty member I felt honored when Frank asked me to chair his PhD committee. We had complementary but different methodological interests. I was focused on developing better survey data collection methods. Frank’s interest was in the use of new statistical techniques that would reveal more about relationships than the methods I had been taught in graduate school. He scoured the literature for new ways of analyzing demographic data and put them to use. I, as well as some other faculty members, learned much from his attempts to understand and immediately apply new statistical methods to data sets he was able to locate. He also impressed us with his soft-spoken manner when helping us to understand the significance of what he was learning. Frank completed his coursework as well as his dissertation in the incredibly short span of two years and headed to the University of Wisconsin as an assistant professor. When Frank became co-editor of the American Sociological Review, I was pleased but not surprised.

In 2004 the WSU Sociology Department received the DuBois-Johnson-Frazier Award given by the American Sociological Association for “its work in assisting the development of scholarly efforts in the DuBois-Johnson-Frazier tradition.” While looking at the complete list of 25 Black/African Americans who had earned PhDs from our Department in the preceding 50 years, I was once again appreciative of what Frank and the others brought to our department, in addition to what they gave to the nation. I find both to be helpful reminders of how much he and others have and continue to matter in the current “Black Lives Matter” era to our Department’s efforts to honor our past and look towards the future.

By Alair MacLean

As a new faculty member at WSU in 2006, I was proud to learn that Franklin Wilson was one of our most notable graduates. I knew Franklin from my time as a grad student at the University of Wisconsin. Franklin was funny and welcoming, and made research look both challenging and enjoyable. When I went back for a visit, he was excited to learn that I had joined his former department.

When I arrived at Wisconsin as a new grad student in the fall of 1997, Franklin was the director of the Center for Demography and Ecology. In that role, he introduced the weekly seminar, which introduced many of us to what it means to be a sociologist using quantitative techniques. At the beginning of the academic year, he welcomed all the new students by describing the seminar as the grad school version of “show-and-tell.” In that vein, he performed his duties as the master of ceremonies, joking and putting the audience and presenters at ease. He was always among the first to pose a question that got to the heart of the subject of a presentation no matter what the topic. He also presented his own work, providing a model of how to respond to feedback. When he heard something he particularly liked, he would often compliment the questioner, saying, “You devil, you.”

Though Franklin was not on my committee, he helped me in the early stages of my dissertation, which examined the consequences of military service. At that time, he was one of only 2 of around 40 faculty members who had served in the armed forces. Somewhat naively, I had been surprised to discover that more than half of the men in who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s had enlisted. Franklin pointed out that for many men of that era, signing up to serve was like “brushing your teeth”—just something you did without questioning it. He encouraged me to think about more than just the quantitative measures in the survey I was using. “If you want to know how their lives were affected,” he said, “you’re going to have to go and ask them.”

Now, as my own work has evolved, I find myself turning back to his work and learning from him anew on migration, ethnicity, and labor markets. As I read, I can hear his voice and laugh, and the joy he took in research.