Living With Legacy: Career, Love, and Community Post-Graduation

"But the law was competitive. I was argumentative, I liked writing. I wanted to be not an observer or commentator on life, I wanted to be in the middle of it and I thought the law would allow me to do that."

Meeting Merinda: Black Love at Harvard Law

Ben remembers his time at Dartmouth as distinctly colored by the lack of women. In fact, many Black students became the foremost advocates for co-education because, without the widespread acceptance of interracial relationships, the Upper Valley had only three or four Black families. Remarked Stefan Bradley in Upending the Ivory Tower, even similarly rural Ivies like Cornell had some semblance of a Black community in both the immediately surrouding town, Ithica, and just outside of its limits, like Buffalo. Dartmouth had no such community, leaving its Black students to travel hours by car to seek out female counterparts at integrated schools like Smith, Holyoke, and Wellesley. Remarked Ben of the plight of being young, Black, and single at Dartmouth,

“I wanted co-education… for all the selfish reasons… But if you didn't have a car, you had to have a friend who could drive you to Smith or Wellesley, or if you didn't have a girlfriend back home, who wanted to come see you, that, you know, was a pretty lonely existence. My first Winter Carnival, the most popular song was ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon & Garfunkel. Man, that was the depressing! [laughter] And another popular song the next year was Rainy Night in Georgia’. That was depressing."

Perhaps, then, it was no wonder that life in a city provided a welcome change. For Ben, this change came on the first day of law school, where he met future wife Merinda Wilson in line for registration. Ben had aspirations of attending Harvard for law school before even matriculating into Dartmouth. Merinda had wanted the same, but in her introduction speech in presentation of the 2020 National Bar Association Commercial Law Section’s Cora T. Walker Award, she also revealed other aspirations.

“Today is Valentine’s Day, so I’ll end on this personal note. In 1973, before I left for law school, I tearfully told my parents I was destined to be single for the rest of my life. I just couldn’t seem to find the right man. (It was hard out here for a sistah). My parents told me they believed God had picked someone special for me who I’d find at Harvard Law School. I didn’t believe them. But my parents, God rest their souls, must have sent up some powerful prayers because on the first day of school, in the registration line, this gorgeous man standing right in front of me with a huge Huey Newton afro and muscles rippling out of a tank top (Lord have mercy) turned around, smiled, and introduced himself."

Ben presented a much more humble retelling of their first encounter.

“And, listen, I met my wife on the first day of law school. And, I liked her immediately, she's very smart. And uh again, I was awkward. And I was going to give her a tour of Cambridge, all I knew was where Harvard stadium was. And she was smarter than me. So when she realized — she couldn't see very well. But I had good vision, I saw her, and I could read the signs, you know, a mile ahead. But once she saw through me and realized I didn't know anything about Cambridge, she still liked me enough to go on a second date."

Ben was not shy to give his wife credit for his success during law school. During the interview, he credited her for teaching him how to study “all the way up to the last minute”, for incentivizing him to study when distractions were high, and for aligning their priorities when preparing for the bar exam. All of their extra effort was not without fruit. The year prior to his graduation from Dartmouth, all forty-two of the Black students who took the bar exam in Georgia had failed, six-teen of whom would later be admitted after filing suit. Despite all odds, Ben and Merinda passed the bar exam without issue before waiving into D.C.

"I knew she was tough and I knew life would be tough, and I would need a spouse that was going to be tougher than me because I didn't think I was tough enough!"

"He wasn't just a dad": Fatherhood and Family

With strong examples before him and three brothers to follow, Ben committed to raising a family with the same zeal he applied through his other pursuits. According to his wife, Merinda, this dedication also stemmed from the premature loss of his mother. Said Merinda,  

“Because of those memories he has a deep appreciation of the fragility of life and the bond between parent and child. So when our daughter was born, he wasn’t just a dad, he was and is a Girl Dad. A father who attended every volleyball game, 230 out of 234 of her basketball games, and every track meet where our daughter during the 4 by 4 listened for his voice telling her when to kick in high gear."

Rachel carried forward aspects of both her parent’s legacies, attending and playing basketball at the University of Pennsylvania, her mother’s alma mater. Graduating in 2006, Rachel went on to attend law school in Ann Arbor, Michigan before founding her own company.

Ben wasn’t the only Wilson brother to encourage his children to success. Ben mentioned during the interview that he encouraged his younger brothers to visit the College on the Hill. In the end, all three–Harry [‘77], John [‘80], and Richard [‘85] attended, where they all played sports and went on to attend law school. Though Harrison passed away in 2010, his son, NFL star Russell Wilson and co-founder of the Why Not You foundation, returned to campus in 2022 to deliver the commencement address. During the speech, which Ben was present for, Russell spoke extensively of his father’s high ambitions and the importance of legacy. Much like Ben often does in interviews, Russell opened with an ode to famed Langston Hughes poem, Mother to Son. Ben closed our interview with an excerpt as well, reciting,

"Well, son, I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it, and splinters, and boards torn up, and places with no carpet on the floor--bare..."

Russell joked that his father would often recite the poem, using “the voice” – no doubt a tradition carried on from Harrison Wilson II to his sons. Throughout the rest of the address, Russell encouraged graduates to “live with legacy”, challenging them not to wait for a legacy to come, but to build a legacy, day-by-day, through joy, pain, and everything in between.

“My dad always used to say, “Son, it’s not the day you’re born, or the day you die, it’s the hashmark in between. How are the people around you affected? What are they gonna say about you?” More importantly, what do YOU want them to say about you. It’s one of the last things he ever told me. “Your name carries weight.” And graduates, that’s the last piece of living with legacy that I want to talk about today. Because what my dad was telling me in that moment was, “Act as though you matter.”

Russell’s speech is deeply personal and moving – even describing the moment of his father’s death in a manner eerily reminiscent of his uncle’s description of his mother’s premature passing, asserting, “It was one of the hardest moments of my life”. Despite their many familial similarities, the core principle of legacy shines through both Ben and his nephew’s stories – for Ben, a cultivation of decades of work.

A Call to Lead: Cultivating Legacy at Dartmouth and Beyond

Throughout his storied career in D.C., Ben has worked for the Department of Justice, the small firm King & Spaulding, and Rose, Schmidt, Chapman, Duff, and Halsey, before joining Beveridge and Diamond. Widely considered the nation’s premiere law firm and employing over 125 lawyers across seven offices, B&D has not only received critical legal acclaim, but praise for its focus on diversity. Twice named a Top Law Firm for Female Attorneys by Law 360 during Ben’s time as chairman, 63% of B&D’s lawyers are diverse, and 90% of new lawyer hires since 2021 are diverse across the span of sexuality, race, and gender. According to the Vault, B&D also ranks #14 across the country for diversity in the Top 150 Under 150 Associate Survey. Ben described his involvement, both within and outside of his firm, in recruiting and promoting diverse lawyers throughout the interview.

The homepage of the Diverse Lawyers Network website.

Ben spoke excitedly about the Diverse Lawyers Network, an initiative founded fifteen years ago on the challenge of a friend seeking a more cohesive community for diverse lawyers in D.C. While vocalizing his early doubts about mobilizing enough support to keep the organization self-sustaining (quoting his wife in saying “It’s not potluck if you’re doing all the cooking”), Ben would be astounded at the network’s quick success. Initially started as a means of celebrating the accomplishments of diverse attornies, the network, now about 6,000 strong, has helped connect diverse lawyers to the fundraisers, mentors, and firms looking to help them succeed. Though now a vital part of his legacy, Ben insists that this success is inseparable from the influence of his mother

“She wanted me to have every opportunity, and that's why I was so greatly disappointed, even to this day, that I had not achieved academic success at [Wilbraham] while she was living… I was, I was improving, but I hadn't quite reached the goal that I knew she had for me. So... I made a vow, my mother always wanted me to do the right thing and I resisted the right thing as often as I could. But sometimes, when people come to me to ask me to do something, I will say yes. Because I'd like to think my mother’s spirit is speaking through them, particularly when what they're asking you to do is a good thing, a right thing. And so it’s my way, small way of hopefully honoring her, and remembering her”

"I get calls from young people like you all the time about law school, about this, about that. I take them all because I felt like that's the type of thing my mother would want me to do."

An article written by the Dartmouth Office of Communications commemorating a significant gift made by Ben and wife Merinda in support of the E.E. Just Foundation in 2019.