Joy Bennett Kinnon
idea came to Mary Wilson at the end of a deserted road, after a 1994 auto acci-dent that severely injured her and claimed the life of her 14-year-old son. "When my baby Rafi died, it changed my life," she says.
"All of a sudden I found myself alone with nothing but my career.
It wasn't the first time she had found herself alone, but it was perhaps the most devastating. "I'd been in that spot before," she says "when Diane and Flo left the group [Supremes], and each time that happened to me I always said this prayer 'God, show me what to do.' "
Tragedy and the prayer led to two life-altering decisions. The first was to leave Los Angeles and settle in New York. The second-astoundingly-was to enroll in college.
After chart-topping hits, command performances
the jet-set lifestyle, why would the Supremes founding member Mary Wilson decide to live the life of a student-attending classes, writing papers and taking tests?
The answer is simple: College had always been on her mind. "There's always this feeling that you don't feel as good as the other person," she says. "People look at artists like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye—and when they die, people say they had such great lives, how could they have been sad? I feel inside you always feel inadequate."
Wilson had an even more compelling reason question herself.
Her late mother Johnnie Mae Wilson, never learned to read or write, and it was
her dream one of her children to go to college. In her book, Dreamgirl &
Supreme Faith: My Life as a Supreme, Wilson says"... for years I feared
that I might grow upto be just like [my
History of Music class star shines (left and center) and (below) hits
the books before her literature class.
mother]. I always secretly feared that ideas and information eluded me."
Locked in constant contract negotiations and court
battles throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s with Motown, her former record
label, she says she began to doubt her ability to think and reason. But the
doubts were groundless as she discovered by enrolling in New York University's
School of Continuing and Professional Studies and earning her associate's
"I feel so much more secure in myself, because of
that education," she says now after maintaining a "B" average and completing
her studies under rigors most students could only imagine.
Hardly a typical undergraduate, Wilson was "traveling
and doing my papers on the plane and in limos, in the hotels and backstage
before going on stage," she says, laughing. A laptop computer became her constant
companion. She used Federal Express to return some of her class papers and
She took her classes seriously. One student recalls
that she showed up for class in costume and stage makeup, sat down, took notes
and then left to do a show.
most of her fellow students and professors didn't know until the end who she
was, she was treat-ed like any other student. "I was very lucky because most
of the time no one found out until toward the very end of the class. I was able to be myself and for once in my life to really be normal, and I enjoyed it very much."
In the middle of her final papers and exams last year came the request to join Diana Ross' ill-fated Supremes reunion tour; a request Wilson turned down. "She
grandmother spends quality time with daughter, Turkessa and her first grandchild,
Mia Marie (left). Wilson also has a son, Pedro (Pedrito) Ferrer, Jr. Below she
discusses the class lecture with her music professor, Dr. Catherine (Kitty)
[Diana] just caught me at the -wrong time," Wilson says. "Normally I'm very
even-tempered, but I was in the middle of my final papers. And they were calling
back and forth, and I think -the time I spoke to Diane was when I had been going
back and forth and doing one of my final papers."
But Wilson says her new knowledge
gave her new strength in the middle of the arduous tour negotiations. "I was
going through too much to get this degree, and I was not standing for anything
that wasn't right"
In order to be present for the small recognition reception
for mid-year graduates, Wilson left a gig in Hawaii and traveled back to New
York, in the middle of the winter. "When I flew back for the ceremonies, I was
really going through one of the biggest moments of my life—it was just a beautiful
moment, and this wasn't even the big ceremony, but I felt so good about myself.
I had achieved what I wanted."
The one thing she got out of her studies was "self-confidence,"
she says. "I told myself I already am what I want to become so I was just hoping
to pass my classes. But my last semester I was maintaining a B+ average."
Havingcompleted the classwork, Wilson plans to attend the major cap-and-gown graduation
Supremely talented, on stage and off, Wilson plans to continue performing.
She is producing and starring in a tour of Sophisticated Ladies. "The music
industry has put [veteran] Black artists out to pasture," she says. "Our livelihood was selling records, and now all you can d0 is concerts. Most veteran acts can't
get a record deal," she says. Although Wilson hasn't had a hit record since
the heyday of the Supremes, she hasn't missed a day of work. "I just feel you
always have to add on to your life. You can't rest on your laurels, and I've
been reinventing myself all these years."
Arista and Holland-Dozier-Holland record companies have
asked her to mentor their young artists, she says, the same way Maxine Powell,
Maurice King, Harvey Fuqua and Cholly Atkins taught her and other Motown stars
in the 1960s. "They trained us and gave us their knowledge as per-formers, and
I'm really looking forward to mentoring younger artists."
also plans to continue taking courses, and spending time with her children and
grandchildren. "You can get too big too early—then what do you have left? I
lived my life," she says. My children are very proud. I have great children
and I'm very pleased."
Her mother would also be very pleased, she says. Tragically, her mother died of Alzheimer's dis-ease before she graduated and never really knew that she was in school. "I wanted it so much for my mom," she says, "because
I felt she was such a brilliant woman and wise about life. Mom, this one was