(Courtesy of Kansas State Athletics)
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Gene Wilson, who became the first black men’s basketball player in the Big Seven Conference when he played at Kansas State in 1950, recently passed away at the age of 89 in his hometown of Anderson, Indiana.
During his two stints as a two-sport athlete for the Wildcats from 1950-52 and 1954-56, Wilson not only became the first black basketball player in the Big Seven Conference (forerunner of the Big 12), but was also one of five to break the color barrier in track and field. His time at K-State was broken up due to being drafted into the Army in 1952, where he served 13 months in the Korean War before returning to campus in 1954.
“The coaches had to approve first, then the athletic directors and finally the university president,” Wilson said to Larry Weigel in 2013 about becoming the first black basketball player in the Big Seven Conference. “(K-State) President Milton Eisenhower took the lead and I’m grateful to him to make it happen. The approval finally came in August but if it wasn’t for Milton Eisenhower, the Big Seven would not have integrated for another few years. Eisenhower was determined it was going to happen and he suffered a little because of it.”
Wilson was one of the rare athletes to be mentored by two Naismith Hall of Fame head coaches in Jack Gardner and Fred “Tex” Winter, helping the Wildcats win 47 games in his two stints, including a Big Seven Championship and an NCAA West Regional Semifinal appearance as a senior in 1955-56. He also ran track for legendary Wildcat track coach Ward Haylett, who was later inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Wilson also broke barriers in his professional life, becoming the first black Director of the State of Kansas Youth Center in Topeka and just the second director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He was also the first black umpire for the American Legion in Topeka, where he participated in 12 regional games, four World Series Tournaments and two international series tournaments.
Wilson was inducted into the inaugural class of the Shawnee County Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 due his outstanding umpiring services to the youth of Topeka for over 50 years.
Born on February 21, 1931 in Anderson, Wilson was a standout basketball player and track and field athlete at Anderson High School in his hometown. He helped the school to the final four of the state basketball tournament in 1948 and led them to a No. 1 ranking as a senior before winning the state long jump championship in 1950.
Wilson was coached in high school by Dobbie Lambert, who provided the pipeline to K-State for him and three of his high school teammates – Bob Rousy, Dick Peck and Danny Schuyler – after playing for Jack Gardner at Modesto Junior College in California. The quartet arrived on campus in the fall of 1950, where they became a part of a freshman team that held their own against a varsity squad that would go on to the NCAA Championship Game in 1951.
Wilson joined the varsity in 1951-52, playing 24 games as a sophomore and ranking sixth on the team in scoring at 5.8 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting for a Wildcat team that posted a 19-5 overall record and finished second in the Big Seven behind eventual NCAA champion Kansas. The team handed the Jayhawks their lone loss of the conference season with an 81-64 win at Ahearn Field House on January 26, 1952
After returning from the Korean War, Wilson played in 20 games for Winter and K-State in 1954-55 and 1955-56. An injury sidelined for much of his senior season in 1955-56, in which, the Wildcats posted a 17-8 overall record and won the Big Seven Championship before a trip to the NCAA West Regional Semifinals.
Upon leaving K-State, Wilson moved to Topeka in 1959 where he began working for the State of Kansas Youth Center. He started as a service worker for the Center, supervising youth and teaching them life skills, before becoming Unit Director, Youth Care Director, Assistant Superintendent and finally Superintendent. He later worked for the Kansas Civil Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) until retirement.
Wilson is survived by his wife, Mae Wilson, and daughter Jeannette West of Goodlettsville, Tennessee, sons Jon Wilson and Jeffry Wilson, both of Topeka, Kansas and several stepchildren, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death his parents (Randolph and Hazel Wilson) and siblings, including brother, Johnny, who played four seasons for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Online condolences can be left for the family on the Bowser-Johnson Funeral Chapel website here.
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