When Byron Wilson moved to Evanston in 1930, there were no streetlights, the first dial telephone service had just been installed and the original city hall still stood at Sherman and Davis.
In the succeeding 80-plus years he has witnessed dramatic changes – in the City and around the world. He served overseas in World War II, traveled extensively and developed a bartending specialty famous throughout the North Shore. As a devoted jazz fan and impresario, he booked Count Basie and Ray Charles for local fundraising concerts. He has, by any measure, lived a full life. Active and sharp at the age of 93, though slowed somewhat by recent surgery, he remains an Evanston institution.
Mr. Wilson was born in Alabama in 1919 and moved to Evanston at the age of 11. Growing up, he was, he says laughingly, a “big man on campus” – president of the Emerson Street YMCA Hi-Y Club; president of the Hy-Lites, a black student group; president of the 5th Ward Young Republicans (“Good lord, forgive me,” he says now); president of the Senior Club, which produced the annual black prom that for many years was the African American counterpart to the all-white senior prom at ETHS.
As an African American soldier, he experienced racism in the military, where he served from October 1941 to December 1945. His battalion was all black; the officers were all white. After training at Camp Campbell in Kentucky, he was sent to Scotland and then landed at Utah Beach in France two months after D-Day. African Americans were denied combat opportunities, but he would frequently be sent to the front to deliver supplies and mail, never receiving combat pay. He was eventually promoted to staff sergeant in charge of 65 drivers and was a first sergeant at the time of his discharge in December 1945.
“I met so many people – blacks and whites – from all walks of life,” he says of his experience in the military. “I went to leadership school. I witnessed discrimination and extraordinary camaraderie.”
He was one of the first Americans to enter the Dachau concentration camp after it was liberated and met and assisted survivors. “I couldn’t believe people could be so inhuman to each other,” he says.
When he returned from the service, he went to work with his father, Byron Wilson Sr., who ran a dry cleaning shop in Winnetka. One of his customers was Bill Murphy, who owned Church Street Liquors in Skokie, and they became friendly. Mr. Wilson was hired as the store’s first full-time black employee, and worked there for 30 years, until 1989, after which he worked 20 years at Schaefer’s in Skokie. At Schaefer’s he was known as “Baron of the Beer Aisle” and his name and photo are inscribed on “Byron’s Beer Wall.” He left in 2009 after breaking his hip.
Working at Church Street Liquors and Schaefer’s he developed a reputation for bartending second to none which, along with his outgoing nature, made him highly sought after as a “mixologist” at private parties throughout the North Shore. His experience in the business also helped land him a spot on the Evanston Liquor Control Board, where he has served for the last 10 years.
“Byron is one of the most charming, intelligent, energetic and sociable people you can ever hope to meet,” says Gene Schaefer Flynn, whose family owned the store until 2009. “Customers and employees just loved him. He was the best goodwill ambassador Schaefer’s ever had.”
Adds Dan Madden, Schaefer’s general manager: “Byron is a class act.”
Mr. Wilson married in 1948. His wife, Beverlee, was a Northwestern graduate and social worker in Chicago. They had a daughter, Gail, now an attorney in Philadelphia. After they divorced, he married Carrie Wiley, a schoolteacher. She passed away in 1994.
These were busy years for him. In addition to his family, he held multiple jobs, working at the liquor store by day and bartending at night and on weekends. He also helped to take care of his dad, with whom he was close, before he died in 1987.
For many years he had season tickets to the Bears and organized the Evanston Traveling Football Club, leading as many as 30 local fans to games in Detroit, Seattle, New Orleans and many other cities.
He also has a passion for jazz. He has been on 16 jazz cruises and amassed a huge collection of jazz albums and CDs. He even embarked on a career as a jazz impresario, booking such legends as Count Basie, Ray Charles, Ahmad Jamal, Gene Ammons and Evanston’s own Junior Vance for shows at ETHS and elsewhere. The money raised went to the Evanston NAACP and the Norshore 12, a group of African American men he founded to provide college scholarships for ETHS coeds.
Reflecting on his eight decades in Evanston, he says, “It’s one of the most unique towns in America for blacks. We’ve had a black mayor, two black police chiefs and two black fire chiefs, black aldermen, black department heads, black school principals and school superintendents. Imagine, Evanston had a black female mayor for 16 years,” referring to Lorraine Morton.
As it happens, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Morton spend a lot of time together. “He comes over almost every night to help me make dinner,” she says. His specialties include German potato salad, beef stew and salmon croquettes.
“He’s an amazing man,” says Ms. Morton. “He cooks, he sews, he irons. Plus, he’s always so generous. Whatever’s needed, he’s there to help. But what I admire most about him is his phenomenal memory. He’s traveled extensively and read widely his whole life, and remembers it all.”
“I’ve led a very interesting life,” Mr. Wilson sums up. “I say to people, ‘Don’t tell me about Evanston. Ask me about Evanston!’”