Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer
NORMALLY, A person who receives an honorary doctorate doesn't go around calling himself 'Doctor', but not Desmond 'Des' Wilson. He believes he has every right to be called doctor for all the work he has done. "Because I earned it, I've earned it," he told The Gleaner during a conversation at his home in Greenland, Hanover, on Wednesday, October 10.
His journey towards this bestowal started in 1957, when he emigrated to Nottingham, England, at age 18 to live with his mother's sister. His first job consisted of dismantling machines in a defunct flour factory. After working for three years in the coal mines of Nottingham, he quitted and found work with Nottingham City Transport as a conductor, then driver, before setting up his own business called Des Café or Des Res in the Radford area of Nottingham in 1971.
Des Café subsequently became a social hotspot for Caribbean nationals, who would meet there for food, assistance, advice and guidance. Many of them were students attending university in Nottingham. At the height of racism in the United Kingdom, Wilson became a community activist and advocate, which eventually propelled him, many years later, into representational politics in the capacity as councillor.
Between 1991 and 2007, he served on the Nottingham City Council, but his greatest achievement came in 2002, when he became the first black lord mayor of Nottingham. In 2005, he became one of a few councillors to serve as lord mayor twice.
He used his vast influence to enhance the well-being of minority people in Nottingham, even putting in place a system whereby the civic office in Nottingham liaises with the university to get acquainted with new students from the Caribbean so they can be integrated into the community.
But why was this important to him?
"Personal experience," he said. "I can remember when I first went to England, how it would have been useful to me if had known somebody in the system, apart from my auntie, whom I could rapport with, and get to know."
It was also to use the university students as role models for the children of Caribbean migrants who were turning to crime to get out of their impoverished circumstances. Education was the answer.
His commitment to the city of Nottingham and his involvement in its educational development are the reasons why New College Nottingham created a bursary in 2003 in his name to "facilitate young Jamaicans who want to continue their studies in Nottingham".
For his dedicated contribution to the black community in the United Kingdom -and the city of Nottingham in particular - Wilson has received many awards, including City of Nottingham Honorary Alderman in November 2011 for "eminent services to the council as a past member", and the Institute of Jamaican Nationals (Birmingham, UK) Local Heroes Award in 2003 for contribution to the development of the Jamaican community and other nationals in the United Kingdom and overseas.
On July 17, the biggest honour of them all was conferred. On that day, the man who didn't attend university himself, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from The University of Nottingham, England, for his assistance to the university and for 50 years of service to the communities of Radford and St Ann's, and the people of Nottingham. It was about recognising Desmond Wilson's contribution to the civic life of Nottingham, the university said.
It was, indeed, a significant gesture as only a few people get an honorary degree from this university, and one which Wilson couldn't even imagine when he arrived in England.
"Unimaginable, that's the exact word," he said, "First, I thought it was a dream … . It wasn't until after [the conferral] that it really started to sink in."
Professor Herb Sewell, a fellow Jamaican and a former pro-vice chancellor of the university, in reading the citation on Tuesday, July 17, said, inter alia, "He opened the gates and indeed the coffers of the city council on several occasions, holding civic welcomes for our students, particularly the international students from around the world who were new to this country and environment.
"He forged a good partnership with our international office and, not surprisingly, also forged a close relationship with the university's international students from the Caribbean islands, again a useful bridge facilitating the orientation of students to life in the city of Nottingham."
And when the moment came for Wilson to respond, he choked. He said for someone who knows how to express himself, he struggled.
"When I had the document (the degree) in my hand, I was at a loss for words. Most of the things I wanted to say I could not get them out. They choked me. I was overwhelmed with joy," Dr Wilson recalled.