Bill Wiley’s legacy inspires in video tribute
February 25, 2010
Former PNNL director, respected black leader remembered in film
RICHLAND, Wash. –
William R. "Bill" Wiley had achieved more than many black Americans in 1954 when he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry.
But he struggled to choose his next steps - until a boy's words startled him into action. Wiley - who was director of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory from 1984 to 1994 - was playing with a friend's young son in Mississippi, which was segregated at the time. Wiley asked what the boy wanted to be when he grew up.
"And the little boy said, 'I want to be white,'" Wiley wrote a few years before his death in 1996. "That hit me right between the eyes, and I said to myself, 'I know I'm going back to college now! This kid doesn't see anything in me to be proud of.'"
"Stand tall, stay black and speak loudly."
- Bill Wiley, quoting his relatives' advice as he grew up.
Leading senior members of the black American community are determined to ensure young blacks grow up to excel far beyond that child's early outlook of the world. The stories and struggles of many of these elders have been recorded by the National Visionary Leadership Project, a nonprofit organization that preserves the wisdom of black elders who shaped American history.
NVLP's latest project is a 12-minute video tribute that discusses Wiley's life and accomplishments, as well as the past, present and future of American blacks in science, engineering and other technical fields. The film was unveiled today during a public Black History Month celebration at the Battelle Auditorium on PNNL's Richland campus. The video kicks off NVLP's efforts to chronicle more stories about black leaders in science. Also today, PNNL's Black History Month Committee named PNNL environmental scientist Wayne Martin its 2010 Community Stewardship Award winner.
The boy's startling statement encouraged Wiley to earn a master's in microbiology and a doctorate in bacteriology. Wiley joined PNNL to study living cells in 1965. As PNNL's director, he led the charge to bring an interdisciplinary laboratory focused on molecular science to PNNL. The result is the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE national scientific user facility that offers specialized equipment and a collaborative atmosphere to researchers from across the world. Research being done there now seeks solutions to problems in environmental cleanup, energy and more.
Environmental scientist Wayne Martin is one of many researchers who attributes much of their success to Wiley. He had been at PNNL for a few years when Wiley took him under his wing in the late 1980s, Martin said.
"He convinced me to do things that I never would have done," said Martin, who didn't want to return to school when he first started working at PNNL with a bachelor's degree in hand.
Like Wiley, he continued his education. Martin ended up earning a master's in radiological sciences and a doctorate in environmental and natural resource sciences.
"He said, 'You're doing pretty well, what are your plans?,' and I said 'What plans?'" Martin recalled of Wiley. "You could say he pressured me. He knew that if you're going to do anything to get ahead in this world, education is key."
Wiley dedicated much of his life to educating others, including mentoring PNNL researchers, serving on the boards of several universities and colleges, helping bring a Washington State University campus to the Tri-Cities, and reaching out to students at historically black colleges and universities through the National Urban League's Black Executive Exchange Program. Washington State University has a scholarship in his honor and an elementary school is named after him in West Richland, Wash.
PNNL and NVLP hope the general public, and black youths in particular, will be inspired by Wiley's accomplishments as they're detailed in the short film.
"Bill Wiley made a significant impact on America's scientific legacy," said Cynthia Dinkins, NVLP's chief operating officer. "This video shows our youth that there are people who look like them and have made great contributions to society. This project will be a success if it gets young people excited about science and urges them to consider a career in that field."
Following the film's premier, a panel of four black leaders discussed the past, present and future of blacks in science. Moderated by Tri-City Herald Publisher Rufus Friday, the panel included:
- John Slaughter - first black director of the National Science Foundation (1980-1982) and current professor of education and engineering at the University of Southern California (2010-present)
- Maurice Foxworth - attorney who was a NASA project manager (1990-1992) and managed technology commercialization efforts at several organizations, including Foxworth & Dinkins, Inc. (1992-2004)
- Wayne Martin - PNNL environmental scientist (1978-present) who received the 2008 Black Engineer of the Year Award for Community Service
- Novella Bridges - PNNL materials scientist (2001-present) who received PNNL's 2009 Fitzner-Eberhardt Award for science and engineering education and co-chairs PNNL's Black History Month Committee
Afterward, the lab's Black History Month Committee presented its third annual Community Stewardship Award to Martin. The award recognizes local leaders who advocate for scientific and other technical programs that help blacks and other minorities, among other criteria. Previous winners include PNNL researcher Eric Pierce in 2008 and Friday in 2009.
Martin is active in the Black Executive Exchange Program and serves on the advisory boards of several education-focused organizations, including: the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program; Washington State University Tri-Cities; Columbia Basin Community College; and the Trustee Association for Community and Technical Colleges. He also leads a PNNL initiative to develop relationships with minority-serving universities and colleges to help recruit more diverse candidates to the lab.
Martin credited Wiley as being the reason why his own life focuses so much on education and community service. He also hoped the Wiley film would encourage others to pursue science like Wiley did for him. That's especially important today, when fewer Americans are choosing science, engineering and mathematics, Martin said.
"Without all of us, everyone fails," he said. "We need to strengthen America's science for all, for blacks, for Asians, for Hispanics, for whites - for everyone. That's why I'm keeping Bill's drive and dedication at the front of my mind - to improve America for all."
A video recording of today's entire event, including the panel discussion and the video's first showing, is available at http://imse.labworks.org/2010/bmh/february/pasm.htm.
Tags: EMSL, Awards and Honors