When Elaine Adams Wilson graduated from Dunbar High School as valedictorian, she received a "Scholastic Achievement" pin from the University of Kentucky Alumni Association.
She would rather not tell us what year that was.
Nevertheless, on July 1, several decades after receiving that award, Wilson will become the first black person to serve as the president of that 37,000-member organization.
"I have had ties to the UK Alumni Association for that long," she said. "This is such an honor. I get the opportunity to show people what the university can mean for all of us."
Wilson, who has been a lifetime association member since 1987, is fully aware of what her position means to the thousands of people of color who have attended or graduated from the university since Lyman T. Johnson successfully sued to desegregate UK in 1949.
"I know we've had some issues going back a long time," she said. "Lord knows we have. Many people have had issues. You had people back then who didn't think people of color should be at UK."
But she thinks traveling the state as an ambassador for the university will allow more people to see things have changed.
"This is a historic moment," said Lee A. Jackson, president of the Lyman T. Johnson African-American Alumni group. "It is setting the framework to get more African-Americans involved in the alumni association. She is the first African-American officer within the ranks."
Brenda B. Gosney, the current president whose term ends June 30, said the association has made a concerted effort in recent years to improve the diversity of the board. "The president not only represents members of the association, but also the voice of all the alumni," she said. "As the face of the alumni association, (Wilson) sends a message that we are moving in a positive direction."
Born in Lexington and reared on Eddie Street surrounded by extended family, Wilson said her grandfather, William "Pete" Brown, worked as a cook on Mount Brilliant Farm and her grandmother, Louise Brown, stayed home to care for their 11 children.
"They had servant quarters and he had to live out there," she said. "He got a half day off on Thursday afternoon and part of Sunday."
Wilson's mother, Jean A. Johnson, who was also a valedictorian at Dunbar, worked as a domestic in private homes and as a maid and beautician's helper in a beauty parlor before becoming a claims approver for an insurance company.
"She didn't learn to drive until I was almost in college," Wilson said, adding her mother suffered with back problems caused by the jarring of the buses she rode as they traveled over uneven roads.
Her grandmother watched her while her mother worked and she helped Wilson with her homework. "She told me I was second to none," Wilson said. "I really liked that phrase. Whenever I would get down over the years, I would pull myself up on that. I would think, 'She believed in me.'"
Wilson enrolled at UK to be a medical technologist, but changed her major three times and still graduated in four years with a degree in social work. She earned her master's from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and has worked in New York, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee.
When she returned to Lexington, she met and married Grant Paul Wilson Jr. in 1973. They moved to Somerset and had three sons during their 34-year marriage. He was the first black member of the Somerset City Council and served for 18 years. He died in 2007.
For many years, she worked at the Oakwood Training Facility in Somerset as associate facility director. She is now the Director of Cultural Diversity for Somerset Community College.
In her spare time, she is a longtime member of the Lexington Singers, the Somerset Independent Schools Board of Education, the Hospice of Lake Cumberland board, the Kentucky Humanities Council Board and the president of the Pulaski County Library board. And she has her real estate license although she hasn't worked in that field in a while.
"Elaine is a very energetic and ambitious person," Gosney said. "She has more stamina than I do."
So, what does Wilson plan to do with all her new powers?
She hopes to increase the number of minorities in the alumni association which could lead to an increase in the number of minorities on the UK Board of Trustees, on which she served from 2000-2005.
Trustees are appointed either through political means or through nominations voted upon by the association's members. Three association members serve on the trustees.
The more people who are members of the association that began in 1889, the more people who could be eligible to serve on the trustee board.
"Lyman T. Johnson started this and got the university to where it accepts everyone now," Wilson said.
The next step, then, should be active participation in the decision-making process. "That doesn't happen by accident," she said.
The university, she said, serves American Indian, Asian, black, white, Hispanic, and Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders. "We need to make sure they want to join us because we make them feel comfortable," she said. "We need to make sure they know UK is a welcoming place no matter where you come from.
"This is not black history," she said. "This is university history. This is Kentucky history. It is not just for us, but for everybody."
Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.