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March 30, 2017

Obituary: James Albert Wilson

obit wilson copyLori McMaster remembers sitting in the classroom of her father, James Albert Wilson, who died on March 3, 2017, after a long career as a faculty member in the Katz Graduate School of Business.

McMaster, now director of the Office of Professional and Career Development in the School of Law, then was a Pitt law school student. Her father was teaching a class centered on one of his main concerns: business ethics.

He didn’t just stick to the script, McMaster recalls. “He broadened the conversation” to include principles espoused by Martin Luther King Jr., placing the more expected subject alongside lessons from the nonviolent civil rights movement. “He was very proud of the work the business school did and the role he played talking about business ethics before — frankly decades before — it was au courant,” she says.

Wilson was born on Feb. 28, 1928, in Wilkinsburg. His Pitt affiliation dates back to his father, Albert, who worked as a carpenter on the building of the Cathedral of Learning.

Wilson served in the U.S. Navy (1946-48), then graduated from the U.S. Air Force School of Administration and Logistics in 1951. He then was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve and served there until 1959, when he was a first lieutenant.

He received an AB in philosophy and social sciences in 1952 and an MEd in sociology in 1958 from Duquesne University. After continuing his graduate study part-time at Pitt for the next several years in psychology and administration, he moved to The Queen’s University of Belfast in the United Kingdom, receiving his PhD in psychology there in 1964.

Wilson’s early academic career included chairing the sociology department at Carlow University (1955-58), after which he joined the Katz school as an instructor and assistant to the dean. He became an assistant professor in 1962 and taught courses on organizational behavior and social performance, in addition to his business ethics classes.

While at Katz, he also served as a faculty member on the President’s Executive Interchange Program in Washington, D.C., during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. Alongside his many papers and presentations, he undertook decades of consulting for the Bell, Westinghouse and IBM corporations nationally, as well as many local and international nonprofits and businesses.

His teaching career included working as a research fellow at the Educational Research Centre at St. Patrick’s College of Dublin City University, Ireland, 1969-70, and as a private clinical psychologist.

Wilson was named an emeritus associate professor in 1991 and a professor emeritus the next year.

“My father lived an incredibly full life,” McMaster says, “because he was always searching, always hoping to learn more, deeper into his understanding of the human condition.

“He loved teaching — it was his first and foremost calling. My father was the quintessential intellectual. He loved broadening people’s perspectives through information and dialogue.” Wilson felt that education, she says, “was the key to advancement and living a moral and well-informed life. He believed in the transformational power of learning.

“He had a great sense of humor,” she adds, and especially appreciated British comedy, such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, because it was “simultaneously intellectual and ridiculous.”

He also had a quite serious side, becoming an activist for many social justice causes. This stemmed from his conversion to Catholicism while at Duquesne, McMaster explains. “He was a very spiritual person and saw the suffering of other people very deeply. He lived his faith. He lived his morals.”

His spiritual quest continued throughout life, she says, sending then-Katz Dean H. Jerome Zoffer to his rabbi to seek answers for Wilson about Judaism as the pair — best friends, according to McMaster — probed deeply into the subject.

By the time McMaster joined the law school staff in 2011, her father was long retired. “He was really so proud of me,” she says. “I park in the same parking garage my father parked in. When I come out I look at the Katz Graduate School of Business. In some small part I am carrying on my father’s legacy.”

Memorial donations may be sent to Sewickley Community Center, 15 Chadwick St., Sewickley 15143; Autism Connection of PA, 35 Wilson St., Pittsburgh 15223; or the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 1 N. Linden St., Duquesne 15110.

In addition to McMaster, he is survived by children Shelley Whittier and Michael Wilson; brother David Wilson; niece Jacalyn Wolf Heinl; grandchildren Rachel Whittier, Caitlin McMaster, Morgan McMaster, Ethan McMaster and Maya Wilson, and former wives Michelle Harrison and Patricia Wilson. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Elsa Wilson.


—Marty Levine

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