John Wilson had a vibrant business and civic career for half a century in Atlanta, but no period of decision-making was as busy for him as the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, when he was:
• president of the Atlanta Community Chest (1966) and the Atlanta United Appeal (1967), both predecessors of the United Way of Atlanta.
• chairman of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (1970).
• chairman of the chamber’s International Air Routes Task Force (1971).
• president of the Georgia International (later called the World) Congress Center (1970-72).
• chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (1972-73).
During this demanding period, he also was president and CEO of Horne-Wilson Inc., a wholesaler and distributor of building supplies (1962-74), and of Multimart Corp., an international trading firm (1975-2007).
John Cowles Wilson, 92, of Atlanta died March 8 at Piedmont Hospital of natural causes. A memorial service took place Thursday at H.M. Patterson and Son’s Spring Hill Chapel.
Sam Williams, who retired earlier this year as president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, said Wilson decided during his chamber chairmanship that the time had come to transform Atlanta into an international city.
It was a struggle, Williams said. When the chamber voted a resolution to that effect, the local media promptly ridiculed the idea, and the prospect of state legislative help was dim.
“But once John got his teeth into something, he didn’t give it up,” Williams said.
The two keys to attaining international status, Williams said, were winning air routes abroad and building a world-class gathering place.
“John led the campaign for both. Through the 1970s Atlanta had flights only to and from Puerto Rico and Mexico. Thanks to the efforts of John and others, we won flights to and from Brussels and Paris and took off from there,” Williams said.
Wilson also won over key legislators who eventually secured state support that was essential to complete the World Congress Center in 1976, Williams said.
“If it weren’t for John’s building the platform for global status, there would have been no Atlanta Olympics,” he added.
“John Wilson’s place in Atlanta’s business world was front and center,” said Sam Massell, Atlanta’s mayor from 1970 to 1974 and current president of the Buckhead Coalition.
“He was always called upon when the business community needed to put forth the perfect image,” Massell added. “It was widely known that John would always accept the call to duty and could be counted on to do a good job.”
Massell said Wilson once asked him to serve as honorary chairman of the effort to build the World Congress Center. “I accepted,” Massell said, “even though I was highly skeptical, but John’s vision was on target and, by golly, we got it done.”
Clarence Smith, chairman and CEO of Haverty’s furniture stores, called Wilson the kindest, most upbeat man he has ever known. “No wonder,” he said, “that people called on him to do things — he was so positive, so good to have around.”
Smith noted that, in addition to selling the world on Atlanta, Wilson was an early proponent of bringing the world’s products here. While in charge at Multimart, Wilson arranged for the importation of a variety of goods — for instance, outdoor furniture and objects of art from China and Indonesia, Smith said.
Martin Worthy of St. Simons Island, Wilson’s roommate at Harvard University in the early 1940s, said he kept up with his college friend’s career years later even while practicing law in the District of Columbia.
“When John was president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, he wanted to bring more business to Atlanta, and when he was chair of the Atlanta Fed, he aimed to do the very same thing for the whole Southeast,” Worthy said.
Surviving are his wife of 65 years, Margaret Eugenia “Jean” Wilson; two daughters, Caroline Spangenberg and Laura Blackburn, both of Atlanta; a son, Charles Berkeley “Berke” Wilson II of Atlanta; and eight grandchildren.