When former state Sen. Yvonne Wilson was celebrated with the renaming of a Kansas City park in her honor earlier this year, she proffered some advice for others: “Be proud of where you came from, and be proud of the people who helped you get along the way.”
A lifelong resident of Kansas City who spent decades as an educator and serving on various service organizations, it’s clear Wilson was proud of her home. But the legacy of service she has left is revered among those who knew and served alongside her — especially for those who credit her with helping them navigate Missouri’s political world.
Wilson passed away on Oct. 14 at the age of 90 years old.
Wilson served as the Minority Caucus Secretary in the state Senate. She represented parts of Jackson County in the Senate from 2004 to 2010 as a Democrat; prior to that, Wilson was a state representative for five years.
Before joining the General Assembly, Wilson worked as a teacher, consultant, and principal for the Kansas City School District for nearly four decades. She was the first African-American to serve as president of the Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals and worked as the director of Elementary Education until she retired in 1985, according to her Senate biography.
Wilson had also been considered for president of the National Association of Elementary Principals.
“Sen. Wilson was a phenomenal woman, and she was an educator. She was a staunch advocate of education and mentorship of young people, having mentored many of them on her own,” state Sen. Kiki Curls, who took over the seat when Wilson retired in 2010, told The Missouri Times.
And Curls has knowledge of that mentorship firsthand. She said Wilson was her “mom away from home” while she was in Jefferson City.
“She was extremely supportive, extremely encouraging, and she had completely taken me under her wing when I had come to Jefferson City,” Curls, a former state representative, said. “She was very much a public servant and had given her life to her community here — to education and to a number of service organizations in Kansas City.”
According to her biography, Wilson was involved with the Kansas City City of Fountains Foundation Board, Mid-America Regional Council Early Learning Board, the Kansas City Sister Cities Association Board of Directors, St. Louis Catholic Church, and much more.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said Wilson is someone who had a special gift of being liked by everyone. And, he recalled, she had a calling to help younger generations.
“When I was running for mayor, she was particularly supportive in making sure I always knew there was somebody like her — established, older — who believed in me, and that meant a lot,” Lucas told The Missouri Times. “She told people, particularly young people, to take chances and to get engaged. And I think that’s why when you look at the politics of Kansas City, you see a lot of new people pop up: a mayor who’s 35 and from the black community, council members who are new and don’t come from long political families.”
“We will continue her leadership in politics,” Lucas said.
Wilson was a world traveler, who made trips to China, England, Egypt, France, Ghana, Kenya, Russia, South Africa, and Tanzania.
Her memoir, “In Living Off Grandma’s Sayings: From Leeds to the Legislature,” was published in August. In it, she reflected on the lessons she learned from her grandmother growing up in Kansas City — and how those teachings molded her into the public servant she became.
Wilson left the state Senate in 2010 to take care of her ailing husband, Jim, who has also since died, Curls said. But still, she remained incredibly active in both Kansas City and Jefferson City.
In April, a 90th birthday party was thrown for Wilson in the capital city where she was able to catch up with old friends and colleagues. Curls said she “lived life like she was in her 70s — young looking and young at heart.”
And in June, Wilson attended a ceremony renaming a Kansas City park in her honor. In the resolution renaming the park, the Board of Parks and Recreation noted Wilson’s dedication to education, public safety, housing, and work to increase funding for the Kansas City Zoo.
U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver called Wilson’s death “a profound loss for Kansas City and Missouri.”
“Wilson was an unflinching advocate for children and families throughout her career,” Cleaver said in a statement. “Kansas City is a better place because of Wilson’s lifetime of service and commitment.”
A native of Kansas City, Wilson received a degree in education from Lincoln University. She’d later obtain her master’s in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, eventually adding an educational specialist degree in education.
Lincoln University granted Wilson an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities degree in 1991.
Aside from her husband, Wilson is also preceded in death by her son, James E. Wilson. She is survived by her two daughters.
Others remembered Wilson and her life of service on social media:
I’m so sorry to hear that. I met the Senator on the House floor this year. I appreciated her work. My prayers to you and her family.
— Dottie Bailey (@repdottieb4mo) October 14, 2019
She was a fierce advocate but also very kind and generous. She is a great loss to this community. https://t.co/wdjfbdJgLu
— Jean Peters Baker (@jeanpetersbaker) October 14, 2019
Very sad news. She was a great advocate not only for her district but the entire state. A true leader.
— Gina Walsh (@walshgina) October 14, 2019
Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a reporter with The Missouri Times. She joined the newspaper in March 2019 after working as a reporter for Fox News in New York City. Throughout her career, Kaitlyn has covered political campaigns across the U.S. and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa. She is a native of Missouri who studied journalism at Winthrop University in South Carolina. Contact Kaitlyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.