Journalism is the first rough draft of history, as the saying goes. The serendipitous thing about Lisa Bell Wilson (Canisius College, ’91) is that she doesn’t merely chronicle history. She makes it.
Wilson is executive sports editor of The Buffalo News and the first African-American woman to run a sports department at a major metropolitan newspaper.
“That makes me proud,” she says, “but it also makes me shake my head because I know I am not the only one who is qualified.”
There was little time to celebrate her new job. Soon after Wilson was named to her position in 2011, she learned that her husband, Allen Wilson, had suffered a recurrence of leukemia. This was a calamity at home, as well as the office, as Allen was one of her top reporters, a pro’s pro.
“We all knew the outlook was very grim,” News’ columnist Jerry Sullivan says. “She never showed any weakness or self-pity.”
Allen died five months later. Alissa, their daughter, whose name is an amalgam of her father’s and mother’s names, was just four at the time. Wilson was left with twin challenges: Care for their child on her own and run a sports section that had been rocked to its core.
“She knew how much we all loved Allen and didn’t want us to be upset,” Sullivan says. “Even at the wake, she had this big smile, looked around and said, ‘I’m happy. I realize talking to all these people how lucky I was that he picked me to be his wife.’”
Allen’s death was the section’s fourth in a few years, including retirees. Wilson’s strength inspired the mostly male department and held it together at a critical moment.
“She showed the signs of a leader,” Sullivan says, “at a time when anyone would have understood if she cracked.”
The News’ sports section thrives under Wilson’s lead. In 2014, it earned Top 10 honors in its circulation class in four categories of the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) contest, the “coveted Grand Slam,” in the parlance of USA Today Sports’ Gerry Ahern, APSE’s president at the time. “Lisa has done an outstanding job,” he says.
Growing up, Wilson watched a lot of football on TV with her older brothers, Billy and Donald. As a freshman at City Honors High School, she wrote letters to the editor at The News in support of maligned Buffalo Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson. It never crossed her mind that she’d be their editor some day.
She joined her high school track team as a long jumper because she thought it would look good on college applications. “I was terrible,” Wilson says. “I came in third twice --on days there were only three jumpers.”
She earned academic scholarships to West Virginia University (WVU) and Canisius, but the one at WVU also included room and board. Her parents wanted her to go there; she wanted to stay home for a boyfriend. “We didn’t last,” she says, laughing.
Wilson’s Canisius education surely did. She majored in communications while working 35 hours a week at Fotomat and writing sports columns for Buffalo’s Challenger newspaper.
Wilson couldn’t find a job in her field after graduation and she worked for six months in the cash office at T.J. Maxx. That’s when she received a call from Barry Berlin, Ph.D., one of her Canisius professors, about an opening at the Utica Observer-Dispatch. Wilson interviewed and didn’t get the job, but editors there passed her resume to the Niagara Gazette, which offered her a three-month internship that turned into a full-time gig.
That’s how she met Allen at a high school basketball game in Niagara Falls. A deadline loomed afterward as Wilson asked questions of a coach while Allen waited his turn, nervously checking his watch -- a cute-meet, just like in the movies. During their next meeting, at the state tournament in Glens Falls, he swapped out seats on press row so she would sit next to him, courtship at courtside. That night, he asked for her number and when at last he called, they talked for hours -- the first rough draft of a love story.
At 24, she moved up to the Gazette’s Buffalo Bills’ beat in the midst of the team’s Super Bowl run. Allen and Wilson married in 1995. She was named Gazette sports editor in 1997 and was hired as a copy editor at The News in 1998. She has moved up the masthead ever since.
That column she wrote for the Challenger while at Canisius was called “Winners and Losers.” It is not hard to tell which one the losing long jumper is today: The News has been named to APSE’s Top 10 for website, daily, Sunday and special sections among all mid-size papers. Small wonder that larger ones have tried to steal her away, to no avail. Buffalo is home. Her family helps raise Alissa, and her extended family at One News Plaza helps her honor Allen’s memory with their good work.
There is much more history for her staff to cover and for Wilson to make.
By Erik Brady, Canisius College ’76 / Photograph: Jim McCoy