Let the children call her mean. That kind of thing doesn’t matter to Arodorothy Wilson. What matters is that she prepares them for the world “out there” — the world just past her perch at the front desk of the Boys & Girls Club, or Yawkey Club, in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. She’s been sitting there for 44 years now, telling the kids to clean up their language, take off their hats, carry themselves with confidence, look adults straight in the eye when they speak.
“When they go out there, people don’t love them like we do,” said Miss Wilson, 68, a retired patient claims representative and mother of four. “I want them to be ready.”
Over the decades, Dudley Square has changed dramatically. For the woman everyone knows as Miss Wilson, it happened in broad strokes — stores shutting down, violence coming in, schools starting to struggle. She is not interested in the how or the why or the when. Her focus sits squarely on the neighborhood’s potential: the kids coming through that door.
“I think she has high expectations of us,” Skye Corbin, 14, said. “She realizes we can do better.”
Born and raised in Dudley Square, Miss Wilson moved out long ago in search of a larger apartment. But that was just a technicality; her heart has stayed in the square. This is where she walked to church with her grandmother in their Sunday best. This is where she met the man with the pretty legs, the man she would love until the day he died. This is where they raised their children in the early years — right on Winthrop Street, down the street from the church, just a few minutes walk from what was then the Roxbury Boys Club.
So every weekday, Miss Wilson drives back to the Yawkey Club, wipes down the countertops, settles into her seat at the front desk and continues the work of watching over these kids. There may be clubs closer to her South End apartment, but this one taught her children and grandchildren to swim, to study, to stand tall in the world. Miss Wilson will give to this one until she’s gone.
‘Wilson School Of Act Proper’
From her elevated seat, Miss Wilson can see it all. The boy in the crowd who needs a winter coat. The mother too worried to leave her sobbing son for work. The teenagers moving just outside her line of vision.
“I can’t see what they’re doing, and I don’t like that,” she muttered, frowning. “Everybody out of there and upstairs right now!”
Miss Wilson is not an entirely serious person. She has more than 100 pairs of shoes in her closet. Her ideal date is dinner and a motorcycle ride. Or a motorcycle ride, and then dinner. Maybe some dancing mixed in.
But when it comes to discipline, it needs to be done right. Stern and fair, with plenty of love to back it up. That’s how Miss Wilson’s grandmother raised her, and it worked: Miss Wilson went on to raise four college graduates, who went on to raise college graduates of their own.
“She’s got a little old school in her,” said Miss Wilson’s grandson, Jamal Oluokun, 29, who lived with her for two years during college. “She tends to whip you into shape.”
He calls it the “Wilson School of Act Proper.” And it’s always in session. Sandra Stuppard, a teacher at Boston Latin Academy, appreciates that very much. These are tried and true values Miss Wilson is imparting — the importance of education, working hard, expecting no handouts and presenting yourself with polish.
“She holds people to a very high standard even though she gets push-back,” said Stuppard, whose children take SAT prep classes at the club. “She holds true to what she knows works.”
That said, the discipline won’t work without the love. And there it is, on the last day of summer basketball camp, as the kids surround her front desk with their trophies. Miss Wilson is handing out handshakes and high fives to anyone who wants one.
“Bye baby girl,” Miss Wilson said, offering up her cheek. “Give me a kiss.”
Occasionally other staff members sit with Miss Wilson at the front desk, and she likes to call these men sons. She lost two of her own decades ago — Benjamin, a Navy SEAL, to a heart attack, and Manny, a police officer, to a car crash in the line of duty. Manny had followed his mother into volunteering at the club; when he passed, the children suggested a basketball league, which Miss Wilson runs to this day.
Geoff Bynoe, the club’s athletic director, helped start it. He was one of the many to grow up under Miss Wilson’s watchful eye. To this day, when he needs a safe place to cry, Bynoe knows where to go.
“I talk to the man upstairs and I talk to Miss Wilson,” he said.
Rules And Routines
When Miss Wilson was very young, and lived with her mother, there was not enough food and not enough love. At age 7 she ran away to her grandmother’s house and the good life began.
She was happy in the rhythm of that home. There were rules and routines: nightly kitchen cleanings, the Saturday washing of clothes. Work done poorly was work done again until it was right. There was warmth and wisdom and the singing of Christian songs while her grandmother baked biscuits.
“Best woman in the world,” Miss Wilson said of her grandmother, a domestic worker for a family in Newton. “Smartest woman in the world.”
Back then, Dudley Square was big and bustling, with everything Miss Wilson could ever want, from the shopping at L & M Bargain Store to the hot dogs at Joe & Nemo’s. She could walk to the Rivoli Theatre and pay 9 cents for two movies, plus a cartoon.
When Miss Wilson met the man with the pretty legs at a neighborhood BBQ, others discouraged her interest. He was 13 years older, a widower with two children. But he was a good man with a stable income as a silk screener; with love, they made the perfect match.
The hustle and bustle of Dudley Square was fading by then, but the square still felt safe to her. The family lived on Winthrop Street and the children played in the church yard, with Miss Wilson watching from the back porch. When the Roxbury Boys Club opened up around the corner, she signed her sons up for swimming lessons the first day.
For $10 a year, here was a place for her children to grow and strengthen. Miss Wilson decided right away to give her time. Whatever the club needed, she would do: mop the floors, break down the tables, scrub the counter tops clean.
She started as a volunteer three days a week. Then, when her husband had a stroke and Miss Wilson went to work, she took a second summer job at the club. Four years into retirement, she is still at it, working there five days a week.
Miss Wilson hopes to buy a house someday. She has her eye on an empty lot on Winthrop Street, across from her old apartment, close enough to walk to the club in her old age.
“The Boys & Girls Club is her baby,” said Emmanuel Wilson, 24, who spent summers with his grandmother and at the club. “The Boys & Girls club is her heart.”
‘How Can I Help You?’
Sometimes, when a child walks through the doors, Miss Wilson gets a sinking feeling. Maybe it’s the way he carries himself or the slick way he talks, but something in him signals to her: I won’t make it.
“That breaks my heart,” she said.
Her son, Manny, was good with those kids. Now, all these years later, the league in his name is still helping them. Every Saturday, from October through March, more than 150 kids stream into the club to play basketball, stopping first at study hall to get help with their homework. It’s a new rule: no study hall, no basketball, no exceptions. Education is just that important.
“If you can get it in your head, there’s no one can take it from you,” Miss Wilson said.
It is a point of pride for Miss Wilson that all 10 seniors who were active in the club last year are now at college. But the community at large is still struggling. A quarter of Roxbury residents over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma, according to a recent Boston Redevelopment Authority neighborhood profile.
The city is trying to bring Dudley Square back with development: a $115 million municipal office building is scheduled to open in 2015 at the site of the historic Ferdinand building, with the Boston Public Schools headquarters as its anchor. Community leaders have been working all along on renewal, from storefront renovations in the square to the razing of the notorious Orchard Park housing project and the rising of Orchard Gardens, a tidy, mixed-income community.
But serious challenges remain. According to the BRA, Roxbury has the highest family poverty rate of any neighborhood in the city and violence remains a threat: in February, a 26-year-old man was shot and killed at Dudley Square station, the busiest bus terminal in the city.
Sometimes Miss Wilson will sit with the kids and wonder with them about the world outside. They’ll talk about kids killing kids, and she’ll remind them it’s not always bad to run. No shame at all in staying alive. These are good kids, working at the club to help their parents pay the bills. Sometimes they ask her: Why does everyone think we’re bad?
There is not much to say to that, but this: Keep your head up, carry yourself with confidence, and move right on. There are nights when the world makes Miss Wilson feel weak, too. She is not the same person she was, before she lost her sons. Now there’s the worry about her eldest daughter: eight months on the heart transplant list.
But Miss Wilson tries to remember her grandmother’s words about the wisdom of the man upstairs. And then night passes and it’s another day, and she is back at the front desk of her club, peering down at a little boy who is peering up at her.
“Yes, sir,” she said, looking him straight in the eye. “How can I help you?”