In Memoriam: Calvin Wilson (1953-2023)

Colleagues fondly remember a passionate culture writer

Calvin Wilson (photo by David Carson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

My last contact with Calvin Wilson was an email inquiring, “All OK?” about the short commentaries on new exhibitions in St. Louis he contributed to our 2023 fall lookahead.

Well, of course it was. Calvin was a consummate pro, beloved by our copy editor, who could write with authority and insight about theater, books, film, visual arts, dance and music. He was an expert on jazz, which he further explored as host and creator of “Somethin’ Else” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis. We worked together for nine years in the Arts and Entertainment section of the Kansas City Star before Calvin relocated to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2000. He was one of the first writers I contacted after becoming editor of KC Studio in 2015.

The next I heard of Calvin was a Sept. 9 email from Jeanne Ortega, his partner of 30 years, telling me that Calvin had passed, suddenly, Aug. 29. The lights went out for a while.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a vivid and detailed obituary, capturing his quirks and passions and no-holds-barred commitment to the arts. Meanwhile, I passed the news to Calvin’s former Star colleagues in Kansas City, including KC Studio contributing writers Brian McTavish and Robert Trussell, who responded with fond reminiscences.

Said McTavish, “He was my go-to reality check, because Calvin brooked no baloney — not a whiff — even when covering the sometimes silly world of showbiz. He was a total pro, whether deftly reporting the facts or expressing his highly informed opinions on a surprisingly expansive array of artists and art forms. Could he be seemingly gruff? You betcha. But that was part of his curious charm. He also possessed a distinctive sense of humor that gleefully tapped into his subversive side, which always cracked me up. We had our laughs. I can still hear his.”

During his time at the Star, Bob Trussell served simultaneously as theater critic and assistant arts and entertainment editor.

He recalls, “Calvin was an interesting guy — eccentric, smart, argumentative, well-read, charming when he wanted to be and sometimes very funny with his mordant observations. He didn’t have a very easy time of it when he was on the Kansas City Star’s A&E desk.

“My duties included ‘managing’ Calvin,” which couldn’t be done in the real world. Calvin was his own man, and he didn’t care how many headaches he gave his ‘supervisors.’ He was a lively, eccentric presence, so much so that when he left for St. Louis the daily grind on the arts desk became considerably less lively.”

Before he left the Star, Calvin accepted a fellowship to attend the 1997-1998 National Arts Journalism program at Columbia University in New York.

He was raised in St. Louis and earned a B.A. in English from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, following time at Columbia University in New York City, a place he loved for its theater and other cultural offerings.

He shared that love with the readers of KC Studio in two reports from Broadway, published at the beginning and end of 2022. For eight years, he also shared his views on books, films, exhibits and jazz, in reviews, advances and profiles. In November 2020, he contributed an article, “A Singular American Moment,” documenting the response by KC cultural institutions to Black Lives Matter.

“Whether the George Floyd incident will endure as a cultural touchstone or gradually recede into the collective American memory is yet to be determined,” he concluded. “But there’s no question that, in this most turbulent and troubling year, the sight of a policeman’s knee pressed against the neck of a Black man on the ground left an indelible impression. And for the moment, that impression has made an undeniable difference.”

We will miss Calvin’s informed and authoritative perspective in our pages — his breadth of knowledge makes him truly irreplaceable. Calvin was 70 when he died, still full of plans and goals, trips he wanted to take, and undoubtedly, battles to be waged on behalf of artists and their creations. He leaves many in his debt.

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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