From the Streets of Youngstown, to the Pinnacles of Medicine and Academia

BOARDMAN, Ohio — M. Roy Wilson spent part of his formative years on the streets of Youngstown’s south side, getting into the occasional scrape with the law.

The son of a Japanese mother and a Black father who was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Air Force, Wilson had a childhood marked by parental absence, abuse, running away from home, physical confrontations and frequent moves to other cities.

But with some help along the way, he eventually found his path while in high school, and went on to an exemplary career as a medical doctor and educator. Today, he is the president of Wayne State University in Detroit.

Despite his many moves, he has always considered Youngstown his hometown. It’s where many of his relatives still live.

Earlier this year, Wilson published his memoirs, titled “The Plum Tree Blossoms Even in Winter.” In the book, he tells his life story starting with his earliest days in Japan, and shares advice and wisdom for others to hopefully emulate.

On Saturday afternoon, Nov. 19, he’ll sign copies of his book starting at 2:30 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Boardman.

With his book, Wilson aims to inspire young people to reach their goals. He is open in describing his personal struggles, including health problems and growing up in a bicultural family.

“The message is in the title of the book,” Wilson said in a phone interview, a reference to the fact that the plum tree does not go dormant in bad weather. He urges young people to adapt a mindset that reflects a similar hardiness and devotion to purpose.

“I’m around a lot of students who don’t come from well-off families and have challenges in their lives,” he said. “I try to encourage them to persevere and get their degrees.”

The plum tree, he said, is a reminder that regardless “of how dark things get, cold and dreary, something good and beautiful can come out of it. It’s important to have hope and persevere,” he said. “That’s the ethos of Detroit and places like Youngstown, where there are challenges.”

LIFE STORY

He lived in Youngstown from roughly fourth through seventh grades. But it was just one stop for his military family; Wilson attended nine schools in multiple cities before graduating.

He credits a high school teacher he had in Maryland for taking an interest in him and turning his life around.

With her guidance, Wilson went to college and then earned a medical doctor degree from Harvard University. He has also been the president of four universities, dean of two medical schools, and deputy director of one of the National Institutes of Health’s institutes.

Wilson was born in Japan and lived there with his mother until his father returned and the family moved to Youngstown.

It was Wilson’s first time out of Japan. He lived in a small house in the inner city with his mother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, three aunts and uncles. 
“In the book, I tried not to get into things that are embarrassing but it comes through that things were pretty hard,” he said. “[It’s in] the way I describe my mom and father. There were challenges, human frailties.”

The message of the book, he said, is threefold:

  • The lesson of the plum tree, to perservere through adversity.
  • To acknowledge that we all have frailties, and not be judgmental but accept the fact that we are not perfect.
  • To practice acceptance and reconciliation, and understand that regardless of what you’ve gone through, you can look beyond it.

The book also touches on how to navigate the academic ladder “whether it’s high school, college, medical school or beyond,” and as a student, faculty member or administrator, he said.

But his target audience is students.

“Many give up too soon and think they are dealing with an unbearable situation,” he said.

HIS MENTOR

To this day, Wilson remains grateful to Judy Stephan, his English teacher in high school in Suitland, Md.

Stephan, who had polio and used crutches, took an initial dislike to the athletic Wilson. It didn’t help that he would fall asleep during her class.

“She confronted me one day and I explained to her that I had all these extracurricular activities, and I also worked, and I was just tired,” Wilson said. “She made me a deal: She would let me go to the locker room and sleep during class, and then she’d have extra assignments for me later and meet with me to make sure they were done.”

As a result of her mentorship, Wilson read a range of books – well beyond what the rest of the class was assigned. 

“It opened my eyes up to the wonders of reading,” he said. “She wanted to challenge me.”

When it came time to go to prom, Wilson expressed to her his fear that he would make a fool of himself in such a setting. 

“She took me to a formal restaurant and taught me what to do, and which fork to use,” Wilson said. “She also got me interested in museums, the arts. There was something she saw in me. I went to college, and medical school because of her.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.