For 55 years, Bill and Willie Mae Wilson shared a home and a commitment to public service that improved the lives of many in St. Paul.

He was the city's first Black City Council member and later a charter school founder.

She was president of the St. Paul Urban League, the place to go if you were Black and needed to develop job skills or help to pay the rent.

Willie Mae retired in 2004 but fought to protect the Urban League's legacy until she died March 29 of heart failure at age 79 — 15 months after her husband's death.

They worked well as a team, son Bert said last week. Willie Mae was the pragmatist and Bill more of a dreamer. Bert would spend weekends with his mother at her Selby Avenue office and came to understand the importance of her work and the connections she fostered there.

"It was like family," he said.

He remembered, too, her love for classic Motown singles.

Willie Mae Wilson grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and graduated from the former Samuel Ullman High School in 1960. She had her choice of four scholarship offers and decided to attend Knoxville College in Tennessee. That, in turn, introduced her to St. Paul. In 1962, she was selected to take part in a civil rights-inspired student exchange program offered at Macalester College.

Bill and Willie Mae Wilson married in 1964 and for much of the next 10 years she worked at the community level, helping people exercise their rights as tenants and addressing concerns arising from unrest in the Summit-University area in the late 1960s. Eventually, she began working on housing issues at the Urban League and was named its first female president in 1974.

The St. Paul Urban League had been known since its inception in 1923 for its ability to help the community find work. One of its founders, S.E. Hall, was a barber whose relationships with white entrepreneurs supplied leads on jobs.

During her tenure, Wilson spurred development of a senior housing plaza named after S.E. Hall. When she retired, the Urban League had an annual operating budget of $1.7 million. But she also contributed money to the cause.

"I remember many times Willie Mae went into her own purse because somebody couldn't pay their rent," Robert McClain, a community activist, said at her memorial service this month. "She fought on a number of fronts in her own quiet way and with a smile."

James Shelton, who also spoke at the service, said Wilson played a behind-the-scenes role in opening opportunities for people of color to serve on the City Council by suggesting that the council structure, which then included two citywide seats, be changed so all seven members were elected by districts.

In 1980, Bill Wilson made history by winning the First Ward seat.

Johnny Howard, a former Frogtown block club leader who now serves as a community engagement specialist for St. Paul police, said he moved to St. Paul from Detroit in the mid-1980s and worked on Bill Wilson's campaigns with Willie Mae and the couple's late daughter Pelina. The days were long, he said, but he felt like he was home.

"It was like they adopted me into the family," he said.

Through that relationship, Howard connected block club members to Urban League services and the neighborhood became stronger, he said.

"Willie Mae was true to people," Howard said. "She cared a lot."

In addition to son Bert, she is survived by granddaughter Naomi Kiyoko.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109