Two days ahead of his 90th birthday, academic, legal and political leaders paid tribute to former Gov. Doug Wilder on Friday in a virtual ceremony that emphasized his contributions to education.
Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao; Roger Gregory, chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., were among officials who helped honor Wilder during the celebration organized by VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
Wilder, the nation’s first elected Black governor, was Virginia’s chief executive from 1990 to 1994. He was Richmond’s mayor from 2005 to 2009.
Jim Dyke, who served as Wilder’s secretary of education, said Wilder’s milestones in education included pushing to open Virginia Military Institute to women, boosting funding for free-lunch students, and expanding financial aid to include community college students.
Dyke, now a senior adviser at McGuireWoods Consulting, said Wilder also was instrumental in launching the Standards of Learning concept, decentralizing oversight of higher education, streamlining student loan programs, and expanding support for historically Black colleges and universities.
Rao called Wilder “a tremendous icon” for students, colleagues and for the state.
“One of the things you remind us is of our endless potential as people,” he said.
Susan Gooden, dean of the school, read from a letter then-Gov. Wilder sent her in July 1991. Gooden, who had attended Wilder’s inauguration in January 1990, had written him about her educational pursuits after she had graduated from Virginia Tech and was starting graduate school.
Gooden said that in his return letter, the governor encouraged her to “continue striving to reach your full potential, regardless of the obstacles along the way.”
Kaine recalled the day of Wilder’s inauguration when he said his wife, Anne Holton, left him at their Richmond home baby-sitting their first-born child, Nat, so that she could attend the historic ceremony with her parents, former Gov. Linwood Holton and former Virginia first lady Virginia “Jinks” Holton.
Wilder remains one of just four African Americans to have served as a governor, along with P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana, David Paterson of New York and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.
This year, three African Americans — Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond; former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy; and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — are among five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed Ralph Northam as Virginia’s next governor.
In a recent post to his Wilder Visions blog, Wilder sniped at former Gov. Terry McAuliffe for trying to “leap frog” over the other hopefuls and back into the Executive Mansion.
On Friday, Wilder steered clear of political ferment and adopted more of a valedictory tone.
“I’ve always understood and believed till today that education is that key that can unlock all doors, and I never had to go out of my house to find heroes,” he said, referring to his mother, Beulah; his father, Robert; and his oldest sister, Naomi, a teacher.
He said he never has considered retirement from engagement in civic life.
“It’s never an ending in terms of commitment,” he said. “It never ends. It never stops.”