Looking Back: Matilda Dodge Wilson’s 136th birthday


Oakland Post Archives

Matilda Dodge Wilson, co-founder of Oakland University, would be celebrating her 139th birthday on Oct. 18 this year.

Bridget Janis, Managing Editor

What would be Matilda Dodge Wilson’s 136th birthday is Oct. 19. As the co-founder of Oakland University, Wilson became an important asset in the development and future of the university. With the main focus of education, in 1959 Michigan State University-Oakland — changed to OU in 1963 — was built in hopes of allowing students to further themselves academically.

“She was generous of her time and herself, never interfering  with the workings of the institution or the way it was developed,” said George Matthews, vice provost of OU in the 1970s.

After her first husband John F. Dodge’s death, Wilson inherited an estate valued at $10,000,000, which allowed for OU to become a reality. Wilson is also the namesake of Wilson Hall, and her first husband is the namesake of Dodge Hall.

Many people described Wilson as a “feminist” and “strong-willed,” so to many it only made sense when she got involved with politics. She made an impact, not only on OU, but on all of Michigan. In 1940, she served as lieutenant governor of Michigan, and from 1932-1938 she served as a member on the state Board of Agriculture.

“During my freshman year at OU, I met Matilda at a Meadow Brook event,” OU alumna Mary Schwark said in a 2018 Post story. “She was kind, hospitable, generous and grandmotherly in appearance. While diminutive in stature, we understood that she was anything but diminutive in accomplishments.”

The university was practically built in her backyard, and the Meadow Brook Amphitheatre  was built in her front yard. While Wilson and her husband usually stayed at the Meadow Brook Mansion, in 1955, they stayed at the Sunset Terrace while the Meadow Brook Pavilion was being built.

“The site was the perfect spot for the concert, and the fact that it was in her front yard didn’t matter to Mrs. Wilson,” Matthews said. “Eventually, the Wilsons moved back to the Hall, not because Meadow Brook Pavilion, but because the modern architecture of the Sunset Terrace wasn’t exactly what they wanted.”

Wilson had left Meadow Brook Mansion to the university, which is now a big part of OU’s cultural contribution to the community. While the married couple had two children, Danny passed away on his honeymoon and Anna died at a young age due to sickness. The spirits of these two and Wilson’s first husband are known to still be haunting Meadow Brook Mansion to this day. 

Through her time at OU, Wilson donated 1,400 acres of land and $2 million to build Michigan State University-Oakland. The university used that donation toward the construction and development of both North and South Foundation halls, where many students take classes now.

Her contributions to society went further than just around OU’s campus, as she was involved with the Salvation Army, Boys & Girls Club of America and plenty more charitable organizations. Wilson also donated to the Detroit Public Library and Museum of Art fairly often.

“Matilda Wilson had that remarkable quality of never imposing herself on anyone, which is why she was loved,” Matthews said. “I don’t know a soul that doesn’t have found memories of Matilda Wilson.”

In September 1967, Wilson passed away due to a massive heart attack while buying horses in Belgium. Continuing to represent Wilson, there are two awards presented in her name: one to a female undergraduate senior-level student and another to a male senior to recognize their contributions as scholars. A statue of her unveiled last October also stands by the Oakland Center.