Remembering Thomas Zvi Wilson
by Jim Lullie
It’s never easy to define the essence of a person, and that is certainly the case with Thomas Zvi Wilson, the acclaimed Kansas City poet who passed away in 2012. I sat down with his widow, Jeanie, to try and get a feel for the man and his love of writing. She is soft spoken -- a writer and poet in her own right -- and speaks glowingly of the man she loved so dearly.
Tom retired as a Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer with Fry Wagner Moving and Storage in 2000. Although his career was in finance, Tom’s true passions were writing, painting and sculpting.
Born in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in 1931, Tom was raised in the Orthodox Jewish faith and never lost his pride in his heritage. According to Jeanie, as a young man Tom was “very curious and wanted to explore the outside world. He was intense in his beliefs, had the ability to examine and to debate and he wanted to bring a point down to the finest particle.”
He served in the Korean War and when he returned took a Gentile name, “Thomas Wilson.” But he always used “Zvi” in his art, poetry and short stories.
Tom met Jeanie in a creative writing class taught by Dan Jaffe at UMKC and the couple became lifelong friends with Jaffe. Tom credited Jaffe with having a strong influence on his writing. Tom also studied at the University of Arkansas with Miller Williams, the award-winning poet best remembered as having read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Jeanie and Tom shared their love for writing together and eventually fell in love and married in 1991.
Tom was a supporter, board member and one-time treasurer of The Writers Place, an organization that he was passionate about. He was remembered as a mentor to many aspiring writers in the area and always made himself available to talk about the craft of writing, even to the extent of neglecting his own work.
His career as a sculptor and painter resulted in nine one-man exhibits in New York City, as well as in exhibits in such galleries as Miami Museum of Modern Art, Peabody Essex Museum, Georgia Museum of Art, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and Rockhurst University.
Tom’s paintings could best be described as Cubist, an abstract style developed by Pablo Picasso. Jeanie explains that she still has to “find a home for many archival pieces of his art.” But Thomas Zvi and Jeanie Wilson’s poetry archives were donated to the University of Kansas. Stored in a temperature-controlled room at the Spencer Research Library Kansas Collection, “The Wilson Papers” are now accessible to the public.
Tom’s first book, Deliberate and Accidental Act, was published by UMKC’s BkMk Press in 1996 and was a runner-up for the 1997 Thorpe Menn Award. Together the couple collaborated on a book of poetry, The Door into the Dream, published by Mid-America Press and named one of the one hundred Most Noteworthy Books for 2006 by the Kansas City Star.
One of Tom’s favorite poems is titled “Each Trip,” a love poem written to Jeanie expressing his anticipation of her return home after one of her many trips around the country in the course of her career (see below). “He read that poem many times at the end of his reading series presentations,” Jeanie explains.
“Thomas was passionate about The Writer’s Place and believed that it served an urban community and it would benefit from having another venue,” Jeanie says. With that thought in mind, he contacted the Johnson County Central Resource Library in Overland Park and convinced them to establish a reading series with The Writer’s Place as co-sponsor in 2001.
In 2006 when he could barely speak, he stood at the podium at the reading series and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I could always defeat everything in my life, but I can’t defeat this.” Looking at Jeanie, he said, “Will you do it?” Jeanie lovingly carried on his beloved reading series and re-named it the “Thomas Zvi Wilson Reading Series,” which is still offered on the third Tuesday of every month.
Although Tom suffered from a heart condition, it was a rare form of dementia called primary progressive aphasia that claimed his life in March 2012. The irony of his illness became clear when the disease affected the very motor skills that made up the core of his life’s work: speech, writing, and reading.
In the end I learned of a man who questioned everything and yearned to learn more. Thomas Zvi Wilson’s poems often expressed his inner search for truth and understanding of life and even his own religious beliefs. He was a man who eloquently expressed his thoughts in words, which flowed flawlessly from his heart.
Currently Jeanie Wilson is working on a manuscript of new and selected poems that focus on Kansas regions.
I invent longing
as if it were new,
watch the sky
for her plane to fall
into my pitted glove.
I dream the soles of her feet,.
the down tracing her lower spine,
the way she sings my name
in morning’s frost,
The Thomas Zvi Wilson Poetry Series at the Johnson County Library takes place at 7 p.m. every third Tuesday except in November and December. Each reading typically features two poets, and podcasts are available on the library website. Readings are free and include light refreshments. The series is curated by Jeanie Wilson.