CHICAGO -- Long ago, Willie L. Wilson ran off from a Florida work camp, convinced it was virtual slavery. Hounds chased him but he got away.
Later, though he had no money, and only an eighth-grade education, he convinced himself he could run his own business. No matter that his career began as a floor-mopper in a fast-food restaurant. Like his belief in God, there are some things he just knows to be true.
Still later, though Mr. Wilson could barely carry a note, he desperately wanted a place in the church choir. He doesn't sing much better these days, but has made a fortune turning his love of gospel music into a multimillion-dollar business.
The 48-year-old Mr. Wilson is a rare bird on the American landscape -- a self-made millionaire and black philanthropist. Neither a sports hero nor a celebrity, he has made his money the old-fashioned way, as a quintessential can-do American in an America that hasn't always been kind to his aspirations.
Yet hurdles -- lack of education, racism and more than his share of personal turmoil and tragedy -- have only made him want to jump higher. "As a black male, I'm not supposed to be here," Mr. Wilson says. "I'm supposed to be in jail or on drugs. The system didn't expect anything to become of me."
Quiet, unassuming, a little rough at the edges, Mr. Wilson these days lives in a system of his own making, preaching a kind of black self-sufficiency while giving away -- with no regard to ideology -- annual six-figure sums to African-American causes. Though hardly a household name in even the black community, he has recently chaired economic-development committees of the NAACP, Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH and Louis Farrakhan's and Benjamin Chavis's National African American Leadership Summit.
Underlying his generosity is a real toughness: "If you're not Jesus, I'm not afraid of you," he says. Thus, pondering whether giving to someone as controversial as Mr. Farrakhan is the right thing to do, he says, "I may not agree with everything they say and do, but if their heart is in trying to help black people, then I'm going to give them help."
Those who know Mr. Wilson are hardly surprised by his success, or his generosity. "He has a Ph.D. from the university of the street -- what old folks would call 'Mother Wit,' " says Reginald Webb, a Pomona, Calif., business associate. Adds Jimmie L. Daniels, a former president of Operation PUSH, which has benefited from Mr. Wilson's giving: "Willie is straightforward" and dedicated to the notion that African-Americans will benefit more from "jobs than government entitlements."
That Mr. Wilson can't easily be pigeonholed reflects a life that itself is full of complexities, ironies and luck -- good and bad. His story, corroborated by friends, business associates and family members, features a failed marriage, the death of a son to gang violence and an embrace of black-nationalist politics that leave him critical of African-American organizations that depend on white charity for their existence. His story also features two guardian angels -- one black and one a wealthy white man -- the late Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's Corp.
Life for Mr. Wilson began with few outward prospects. He was born in Gilbert, La., one of 11 children of sharecroppers Douglas and Lula Mae Wilson. As a child, he chopped cotton and hay for 25 cents a day. School was a luxury in between the long crop seasons.
At 13, he left home to find a job and landed in a work camp in South Florida, where the pay for picking vegetables never quite seemed to equal the cost of room and board charged by the camp's owners. So one night, with dogs at their heels, Mr. Wilson and several young men fled. Along the way, a man appeared and told them of a safe place to find work. A few yards down the road, Mr. Wilson says, he remembered that they hadn't thanked the stranger, but he was gone. "To this day," Mr. Wilson says, "I think he was an angel of God."
Mr. Wilson did find work, making $13 a day picking crops, and later he moved to Miami, where he washed dishes in a restaurant, all the while sending money home. After several months, he found himself seriously ill and had to ask his mother for money to return to Louisiana. "I hated to do it because she had to borrow money from the white man, and borrowing $15 was like borrowing $1,000," he says.
After convalescing, Mr. Wilson moved away again and began bouncing between Chicago and New York, for several years working at low-wage jobs, including assembling pianos, parking cars, installing ceiling tiles and changing tires.
By 1970, he found himself broke and collecting unemployment compensation. "I was in a rut," he says. His landlady suggested he apply for work at a new McDonald's nearby.
As unpromising as it sounded, the advice would change his life.
A Fateful Move
Mr. Wilson got a job mopping floors, cleaning garbage cans and cooking hamburgers for $2 an hour. He made a good first impression on the white owner. Soon after he was hired, the restaurant's managers walked out in a dispute with the owner; in desperation, he asked Mr. Wilson to run the place.
He did so well that, after the managers returned, the owner insisted that Mr. Wilson remain in management. But he balked at first, being unsure about managing a crew that was largely white. Still, he persevered, despite hostility from other managers who never forgave him for holding things together during their walkout. By quietly going over the receipts each night, he even managed to fill in his one managerial weakness -- learning how to keep the books.
In time, Mr. Wilson found himself in another management role at a new McDonald's opened by the same owner. But the racial tension of his previous job turned to open hostility. Some whites he disciplined complained to their friends and parents, and Mr. Wilson endured threats -- once he was told to leave town.
"I had planned to leave anyway," he recalls, "but I decided I wouldn't let them run me away." He stuck it out, won some of his adversaries over -- then later was fired when he asked for a promotion.
Years had passed and Mr. Wilson had married in the interim. The 16-hour days at McDonald's had taken their toll and his marriage, he says, turned increasingly bitter. Two days after his firing, his wife left him, taking their four children, Kenya, Omar, Rashod and Terrell with her. They would eventually divorce and Mr. Wilson's relationship with his children, though he continues to help support them, would grow strained.
The night that his wife and children left him, "my chest hurt so bad I went to the hospital," he says. But before the end of the next day, Mr. Wilson says he had 18 job offers from other McDonald's.
Banking on Help
He went to work this time for a black owner, but after another five years in the McDonald's system, he also had a plan. He wanted to provide for his estranged family, and he thought he now knew enough about McDonald's to own one himself.
One small problem: He had no money to put up.
By this time, religion, always important to Mr. Wilson, had become an even more an integral part of his life. For years he had tithed 10% of his salary, in some years only $135 a week, to Christ Temple Baptist Church -- generosity that had been a source of family dissension.
So, after praying on it, Mr. Wilson decided there was only one route to his own franchise: He would just call McDonald's founder Ray Kroc. "Three or four times I picked up the telephone to call Ray Kroc and put it down again," he recalls. Finally, he made the call and a secretary asked why she should let a total stranger speak to her famous boss.
Mr. Wilson briefly gave her his background and added, "You don't know me but I might be the person driving down the street who helps to fix your flat tire one night. I need help."
Mr. Wilson didn't get to talk to Mr. Kroc, but he did get an appointment to see him. But when he learned that the McDonald's chairman would be at a shareholders meeting sooner, he went. "I shook a lot of white folks' hands to get to Mr. Kroc," he says. "I told him that the only thing that I had was my integrity and that I was a hard worker. Well, he stopped and looked at me and said, 'You mean more to me than anybody here. Come on, let's go.' "
The story -- confirmed by an array of McDonald's officials -- was the beginning of a long relationship. Says Roland Jones, a black pioneer in the McDonald's system who knew Mr. Wilson: "Ray Kroc was a high school dropout, too . . . He could relate to Willie being a sharp person and having a lot going for him."
Creating a Buzz
Not long after that, Mr. Wilson found himself with a struggling Chicago franchise, financed by South Shore Bank -- after Mr. Kroc put in a good word for him. In the heart of a black neighborhood, the store was a low-volume site with two or three other McDonald's restaurants near it, but he turned it around in less than a year. He insisted that employees be more courteous, ordering them to discard food that wasn't freshly cooked. Mr. Wilson was obsessive about cleanliness and spent money to replace outmoded equipment and plumbing. He also transformed it from just a walk-in, take-out restaurant to one with a drive-through window and a dining room where customers could sit and eat.
He staged fashion shows and break-dancing contests to create "buzz." And he became a highly visible leader in the black community, giving to churches, business associations and Little League teams, and participating in a citywide jobs program for African-American youths.
His core store did so well, that soon he bought three more McDonald's restaurants. He soon found himself a wealthy man.
A Different Tune
One day in 1988 when Mr. Wilson was sitting in church thinking, he says, about how generous God had been, the choir started singing, "What Shall I Render Unto the Lord?" In tears, he decided his life needed a more "spiritual outlet." He jettisoned all but one of his McDonald's restaurants (practically giving one to an older brother and selling the other two) and decided to dedicate himself to gospel music.
For years, Mr. Wilson had created something of a stir in Christ Temple Baptist Church with his singing efforts. Tone deaf, he concedes he "couldn't hold a note." His pastor, the Rev. Princeton McKinley, nonetheless let him sing -- solo. He would gently admonish the congregation: "Listen to the words, not how it sounds."
The church boasted among its members a professional gospel-singing quartet known as the Norfleet Brothers. Mr. Wilson begged to sing with the group; they politely declined. So for five years Mr. Wilson occasionally followed them around the country, watching them perform, all the while working on his voice. He would show up for rehearsals and ''he kept struggling,'' recalls Joseph Norfleet, 72, one of the two surviving brothers. Finally, the Norfleets relented. Partly buoyed by this success, Mr. Wilson decided that the best way to serve God would be to create a gospel TV show. ''I could spread the gospel around the United States and the world and people could be saved by it,'' he says.
Mr. Wilson plunked $400,000 of his own money -- and $200,000 in loans -- into an effort to produce pilots to pitch Chicago TV stations. Between production snags and poor advice from consultants, the effort turned into a $600,000 loss.
Later, however, Johnathan Rodgers, general manager of WBBM-Ch. 2, the local CBS affiliate, was fielding ideas for new programs, including a gospel-music show. He called for proposals and got none -- except "from Willie, who brought me 13 shows," recalls Mr. Rodgers, now president of the Discovery Networks -- U.S. unit of Discovery Communications Inc. "He was ready to go."
"Singsation," the half-hour show began airing in 1989 and is now seen in major black markets, including Chicago, New York, Detroit, Miami, San Francisco, Tampa, and Jackson, Miss. It features a mix of new and popular gospel talent, some white, and is alternately hosted by Mr. Wilson and Detroit-based gospel great Vicki Winans. For longtime sponsor Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., the show "has enabled us to reach the African-American community," says William Piet, Wrigley's vice president for corporate affairs.
But as Mr. Wilson's business prospered, his three sons, Omar, Rashod and Terrell struggled with the lure of the streets, spending time in and out of trouble with the law. Omar, 20, had even gone to prison on a robbery charge. Mr. Wilson concedes that in his children's early years his workaholic nature left him little time for them. His divorce only exacerbated the situation.
Last year, tragedy struck: Only four months after his release, Omar was gunned down when a gang member followed him into his mother's suburban Chicago home. His sister, Kenya, witnessed the shooting and was spared only when her brother Terrell appeared and the gunman ran off.
But the nightmare wasn't over. Gang members sent word to Mr. Wilson that if he spoke out against them at Omar's funeral, they would kill him and his daughter. Mr. Farrakhan, with whom Mr. Wilson had become friendly after he contributed money to a Muslim school, sent over 50 security guards. (Mr. Farrakhan didn't return phone calls seeking comment on the episode.)
Of the experience, Mr. Wilson says, "Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to you." Of Mr. Farrakhan's help, he adds, "I will never turn against Minister Farrakhan. I don't care what anybody else says."
Despite his wealth, Mr. Wilson lives a modest existence: He lives in a suburban house with his aging parents from Louisiana and drives a Jeep Cherokee. When he schedules a business lunch with prospective advertisers or TV executives, he insists they meet him at Gladys's, a soul-food restaurant on Chicago's South Side. Every day, he breakfasts on fried pork chops, eggs over medium and orange juice.
Mr. Wilson concedes he could have been a better father and, though still estranged from his wife and his daughter, Kenya, 24, his remaining two sons, Rashod, 19, and Terrell, 18, now work for him at his remaining McDonald's. Rashod characterizes Mr. Wilson as a "good father" intent on "turning me around." He has gotten Rashod interested in church, while prodding him to think about getting his high-school diploma and perhaps opening his own McDonald's one day, his son says.
In the interim, Mr. Wilson continues to spread his money around the African-American community. Beyond his gifts to high-profile groups, he has for years given tens of thousands of dollars through some 100 black churches that in turn help poor elderly congregants pay their utility and food bills.
Says Fred Rasheed, who worked with Mr. Wilson on NAACP economic committees: "A lot of people forget the bridge that brought them across and the people who opened doors for them. But not Willie."