The ‘who’ behind OU

By Sarah Wojcik

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Oakland University is a landmark of beauty and prestige, but it would not exist without two very important figures: Matilda Dodge Wilson and Alfred Wilson.

The Wilsons’ life was proportional to the immensity of their gift.

Their first meeting was at church in 1925, five years after Matilda’s husband, auto tycoon John Dodge, died. The union was speculated to be money-related, as Matilda was the inheritress of a fortune and Alfred was a successful lumber broker.

“They were Victorians,” said Meredith Long, museum services coordinator at Meadow Brook Hall. Marriage was “not for passion,” but there was a “bond beyond money” apparent between the couple.

Unlike many affluent couples of the time, the Wilsons were frugal and modest, choosing Rochester as their home instead of urban and upscale Detroit. Alfred’s motto – “For law and order” — was vastly different from Dodge’s — roughly translated to “Living leisure to the hilt,” according to Long.

Alfred’s motto aligned more with Matilda’s belief in Andrew Carnegie’s philosophy: “It’s not the money you have, it’s what you do with it.”

The couple built Meadow Brook Hall with American-made materials because of Matilda’s patriotism and Alfred’s confidence in American resources, an uncommon but progressive practice in the early 1900s, when most millionaires constructed lavish mansions from imported materials.

The 88,000-square-foot house ­— today the fourth largest historical house in the country — cost $4 million to build. That translates to $80 million today.

From a game room embellished with wooden carvings of pool sticks and cue balls, to the frieze in Albert’s office depicting his life story, to the hand-sculpted plaster ceiling in the Christopher Wren room, the details are everywhere.

Long said for Alfred and Matilda to build the nursery and governess’s room adjacent from their suites was also progressive; normally these rooms were on an upper floor, far removed from the parents.

During a world tour, the family acquired several zebras and the household pet, Pete the Turtle. Later they donated the 48-pound tortoise to the Belle Isle Zoo.

The couple was a sight to behold, with Matilda standing 5 feet 2 inches and Albert looming 6 foot 3 inches. But what Matilda lacked in height, she made up for in character.

Described by many as a “feminist” and “strong-willed,” Matilda Wilson became chairman of the board at Fidelity Band & Trust Co. in 1931 and lieutenant governor of Michigan in 1940.

In that time, society looked down upon a woman holding so much power, but Matilda was unfazed by public opinion.

She was a member of many organizations, including the National Council of Women, the Founders Society of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Historical Society, according to her autobiography on Oakland University’s website.

Matilda even prepped her daughter, Francis Dodge, to one day fill her shoes by putting her in charge of Knole Cottage, a fully functional playhouse in which every detail is three-fourths size (“Except the toilet,” said Bill Cichowski, president of the Squires, a group of male volunteers dedicated to the preservation of the hall). She was in charge of paying staff, ordering food and cooking meals, according to Long.

After purchasing furnishings for a Grosse pointe house they never moved into, the couple reused the items in the staff corridors. Included were a 1914 organ and custom Tiffany light fixtures, according to Long.

They also shut down the house during the Great Depression and World War II, Long said, not only because of financial difficulties, but also out of respect to others.

Alfred and Matilda gave their greatest gift in 1957, when they bequeathed Meadow Brook Hall, along with all of its facilities (including the Meadow Brook Theater and Sunset Terrace, President Gary Russi’s home), 1,500 acres of land and $2 million for the charter of what would become OU.

According to the Meadow Brook website, Matilda awarded each member of the first graduating class a diamond ring.

Matilda and Alfred Wilson’s magnanimity and influence are reflected in the counting students that have passed through OU’s doors.

The class of 2010 has been working towards creating funds for a life-sized bronze statue of Matilda Wilson that will stand on campus.