Dr. Virginia "Ginger" Wilson spent the majority of her teaching career fostering the intellectual development of NCSSM-Durham students. In retirement she has continued to give of herself, becoming one of NCSSM's most generous donors. (photo credit: Brian Faircloth)

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NCSSM honors Dr. Virginia “Ginger” Wilson, Faculty Emerita, for service and philanthropic support

When Dr. Ginger Wilson, NCSSM-Durham Faculty Emerita and an NCSSM founding faculty member, graduated from her New Jersey high school in 1958, she was given three awards in recognition of her secondary-school accomplishments. The first two awards  – satisfying for Wilson to receive – were wholly academic, acknowledging her talent in foreign languages. But it was the third award, recognizing Wilson as the graduating senior who had given of themselves most selflessly to their school, that still elicits a smile from the now 84-year old. “That one,” Wilson says, “meant a lot to me.”

Sixty-six years later, Wilson has been recognized once again for her selflessness – both personally and philanthropically –  in service to a school. But instead of appearing in ink on a framed certificate, this time her name will appear on a prominent wall plaque greeting students, employees, and visitors to the Dr. Virginia “Ginger” Wilson Chancellor’s Suite. The suite houses the chancellor’s office and a large and small conference room frequently used by NCSSM’s leadership team, Board of Trustees, and the NCSSM Foundation Board of Directors.

NCSSM’s chancellor, Dr. Todd Roberts, publicly presents the plaque bearing Dr. Wilson’s name that will greet visitors to the chancellor’s suite on the school’s Durham campus. (photo credit: Beatrice Moss)

With the plaque just outside his office, NCSSM Chancellor Dr. Todd Roberts will be one of many who will each day look with appreciation upon Wilson’s name.

“Dr. Wilson spent more than 30 years of her life here in NCSSM-Durham’s classrooms [30 full time and 3 part time], forgoing opportunities elsewhere along the way so that she could remain in the place she loved most,” he says. “Her leadership along with other founding faculty laid an amazing foundation for NCSSM and has left a lasting legacy for future faculty, staff, and students.”

“On top of all that,” he continues, “Dr. Wilson has also made significant philanthropic gifts to the school to include a scholarship fund, a travel fund to help with student travel during the school’s special January Term, and a planned estate gift. Dr. Wilson’s incredible generosity with her time and philanthropic support for our school is truly remarkable. I and NCSSM are forever grateful to her.”

Sunshine and flowers

It was the promise of warmer weather and a spring-bloom photograph of Duke University that encouraged a teenaged Wilson to head south from New Jersey after high school. She earned a degree in history and a master’s in teaching at Duke, then began her career in education in Virginia before marrying and moving back to North Carolina to continue teaching, first in Raleigh and then in Durham County. 

Wilson loved the high school classroom. The difference between college students and high school students, she says, was that by college, many students had already formed their ideas. “College students already had the answer,” she says. “Or thought they had the answer. It wasn’t the same as seeing high school students thinking about what things mean.”

Twelve years into her career, and with a Ph.D. now in hand, Wilson began reading stories in the local paper about a new kind of high school coming to Durham. 

“I was teaching AP courses in high school and had always liked the concept of bright students coming together to feed off each other, so when I saw the reports about NCSSM maybe coming to Durham I was intrigued,” she says. “I thought, “Well, maybe I should apply to that school.’”

Wilson became one of NCSSM’s founding faculty members, teaching history and quickly rising to Dean of Humanities. In the beginning, though, she had one significant concern; at a school focused on science and mathematics, would students enjoy the humanities?

“What we found out,” she says, “was that 16 year-olds who are pretty bright are pretty bright across the board. They were interested in English, they were interested in history, they were interested in foreign languages. They loved art. They loved music. They were well-rounded students.”

Wilson had no idea she would remain at NCSSM for more than three decades. But after that first year of operation, despite the unfinished buildings and still-developing curriculum, and a lack of on-site dining services,  she did know that the school was going to succeed:

“I knew that if we could do all of that, that NCSSM was going to be a go. And I think the students knew it, too. Everything we did was new and different, and every day something was happening. It was an exciting time, and the students just loved being together.”

Wilson could have moved up the pay scale by going into administration, but it would have meant leaving the classroom. She let those opportunities pass.

“Teaching was my passion,” she says. “Leaving the classroom for an administrative position was the one thing I didn’t want to do.”

The opportunity to travel and explore other cultures as a young person, says Wilson (who was three years into her NCSSM career in this 1983 photo), led to a lifelong interest in history. (photo provided by Colin Law ’86)

Professionally, Wilson found at NCSSM everything she’d ever hoped for in a job: dedicated faculty, supportive administrators, freedom to innovate, and a student body genuinely interested in developing their intellect. Those attributes are great selling points, but what still resonates most with Wilson are all the times she got to see the world bloom in a student’s mind.

“My favorite memories of NCSSM are the ones where a student said, ‘I never would have thought about that.’ Those moments stick with me, and I think that, in that way, this school changes lives in dramatic ways.”

Wilson was especially moved to see young women fully embrace themselves at NCSSM.

“So many girls – especially when I first started teaching –  suddenly quit raising their hands in class when they get to high school and they try to look like they don’t know very much,” Wilson says. “It’s such a waste of talent. But when they all came together at NCSSM, they kind of realized, ‘Hey, it’s ok. We’re smart and we can show that we’re smart and it’s ok. We don’t have to hide behind a skirt.’”

Continued engagement

Though retired, Wilson has found new ways to continue contributing to the life of the school. In the last few years she has established two endowments – one to provide small scholarships to NCSSM graduates enrolling at her alma mater, Duke, and another to help students with financial need participate in NCSSM’s travel opportunities during January Term.

The latter seems especially dear to her heart. Wilson credits her own early travel experiences to her interest in history, and feels strongly that traveling outside one’s usual orbit enriches one’s intellect and appreciation of the world around them in ways that surpass any measurable outcome.

As a teacher, she regularly saw such results when she led students on trips to Europe. “I remember,” Wilson says, “seeing students on the trips I led just having their eyes opened up, saying, ‘Oh my gosh! There’s a world like this? They think like this? They live like this?’”

But not every student can afford such trips. Wilson laments this lack of opportunity, as well as her inability to foot the bill for every kid eager to see more of the world who can’t due to family finances. 

“One of the very greatest things about NCSSM is that our students come to us from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds,” she says. “Some of them have never even been out of North Carolina, and some have had very limited experience outside of their hometowns. I can’t level the field for all of them, but with this travel endowment at least I can level it for some.” 

Wilson’s generosity hasn’t stopped there. Most recently she finalized the details of an irrevocable gift to be made to NCSSM in the future that will significantly boost the depth and scope of her impact on NCSSM. All totaled, Wilson’s philanthropic support will mark her as one of NCSSM’s most generous individual philanthropic supporters.

Barbara Coury, NCSSM’s Vice Chancellor for Development and President of the NCSSM Foundation, said Wilson’s gift is particularly touching given all she has previously given of herself to the school.

“We hear a lot from donors that they support NCSSM because they feel they owe the school a debt of gratitude,” Coury says. “With Dr. Wilson, it’s clear that it is we who owe her.” 

The dollars that Wilson has donated and earmarked for a future contribution are dollars she could have easily and understandably spent on herself and her husband. Instead, she has chosen to share them with students whom she will never know or meet. It’s the most recent selfless act of service in a lifetime of selfless service that began when she was a teenage girl.

“I feel like I did my best,” Wilson says of her contributions in and out of the classroom. “I always think that I could have done more, you know, but I feel like I did my best. I put forth my best effort because I love the school and I love the students. And I don’t feel like I gave 30 years of myself to the school. I look at it as the school gave me 30 years to be here. I could not have asked for a better teaching situation.”