In memoir, Wayne State president hopes to inspire others to persevere

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson believes many people make assumptions about his background because of his success.

The Harvard-trained ophthalmologist is nearing a decade at the helm of the Detroit college after a distinguished career in key higher education and medical leadership roles. 

But in his memoir published Wednesday, Wilson, 68, shatters any preconceived notions of a privileged upbringing. The book includes intimate details about his childhood, years of which were spent in Japan.

Dr. M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University, signs his book for Katie McMillan during his book signing at the college's bookstore in Detroit on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

The son of a Japanese mother and African American father, he explains his father was an alcoholic who served in the Navy and Air Force and was often away from home; his mother, he wrote, was a compulsive gambler who left he and his sister, Dianna, on their own sometimes months at a time, including more than one Christmas. Both his parents have since died.

In the book, he recalls at age 10 trying to convince doctors at a military base near Misawa, Japan to treat Dianna, then 5, after she fell on the ice and injured her head; running away from home, sometimes for days at a time; and being sexually assaulted twice, including by an adult woman who was a babysitter for he and Diana.

"It was a lot, growing up by ourselves," Wilson told The Detroit News. "Some of the things are so unbelievable, that people are going to say, 'No, that really didn't happen.'"

The book chronicles how Wilson faced other setbacks, racist incidents and health issues, yet prevailed. 

He said he wrote the book to send a message that even when things are dark, there is a way.

Copies of the memoir written by Dr. M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University, during his book signing at the college's bookstore in Detroit on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

"I wanted to target students who have challenges in their life, to persevere, find a way, graduate, to get through it, whatever it is," said Wilson. "That is really the theme of the book that even in the darkest of times, something good can come out of it."

That is how the book got its name, "The Plum Trees Blossom Even in Winter." 

Wilson, who has been WSU's president since 2013, was previously a deputy of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, as well as chancellor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and its Health Science Center in Aurora. He also has had stints as president of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock and dean of the medical school and a vice president at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

Wilson shared an example in the book of how he encountered racism. When he was trying to get into medical school, during an interview with a surgeon at the University of Maryland, one of three medical schools he had applied to, the surgeon compared Wilson's knowledge and behavior to other Black students and "commended my breeding and compared it to that of his hunting dogs."

"He probably didn't even know that his comment was insulting and racist," wrote Wilson, adding that he withdrew his application from the school.

Wilson signed copies of his book at the Barnes and Noble store on Wayne State's campus on Wednesday as people lined up to talk with him and buy the book.

Among them was Mary Zatina, general manager of WDET, Detroit's public radio station. She had already read the book and learned a lot about Wilson, calling it "a remarkable life."

Dr. M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University, signs a book for a visitor during his book signing at the college's bookstore in Detroit on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

"His willingness to be forthright and share so much is going to inspire somebody to keep going, and do great things," said Zatina.

The hardcover book, published by Wayne State University Press, costs $24.99 and is available for purchase at the Wayne State book store and on Amazon.