It is with a heavy heart that we share the news of the passing of Writers’ Program student Jessie Lee Dawson-Wilson. Jessie was 76-years-old and a Top 10 finalist in the 2012 Writers’ Program Screenplay Competition, as well as a participant in our Community Access Scholarship Program (CASP), and the recipient of a 2011 UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship.
Jessie was born in Texas to parents who were sharecroppers. Her family says, “Even in the fields where she picked cotton, the seed to write was ripening.” In her personal life she was accomplished in many rights; she had two masters degrees and taught in Los Angeles public schools. She was also a poet who self-published a memoir called Yellagal: Memoir of a Sharecropper’s Daughter. In the Writers’ Program office, Jessie was known as a student who was determined to pursue her writing aspirations–even later in life.
As a CASP student, Jessie took courses in both creative writing and screenwriting. Last year, among a competitive pool of applicants, Jessie applied for our revised scholarship program and went on to become one of ten lucky recipients. She took advantage of her scholarship workshops to help polish her screenplay, Traveling On, a coming-of-age saga set in the 1950’s about a Texas sharecropper’s daughter who goes looking for her uncle who left home as a boy. Sure enough, her work made it into the Top 10.
“Jessie was so full of life in class it’s hard to believe she was in any way close to death. Her writing was rich with luscious detail. Her work ethic was first-class. And she surprised us all with how hilarious she could be when reading dialogue aloud. I am shocked and horrified and heartbroken by her passing,” says her instructor Cindy Davis.
Instructor Quinton Peeples shares, “Jessie Wilson is why I teach at UCLA Extension. She represented, in the boldest and most exciting way, what education can do—it liberates us no matter what our age, circumstances, or perceived limitations. She sat in the back of the class but she filled the entire room with her talent. Her writing was fiercely original and could only have come from her. She surprised me week in and week out. Jessie was the definition of inspirational. We should all aspire to do as well as she did.”
Another of her screenplay instructors, Tom Lazarus says, “Jessie was a unique student. I didn’t know her impressive background when I accepted her into the Advanced Feature Film Writing Workshop. All I knew was she could write and had a fascinating story to tell. During class, I got to know her and her story better and was totally taken by her. I’d give her rewrite notes on her script and she’d inevitably respond, ‘I can do that.’ And she did it—progressing on her script, learning and having a good time.”
Tom adds, “I had accepted Jessie into my next class but a few days before we were scheduled to meet, her son informed me of her passing. I loved having Jessie in class. Her calming presence, her warm laugh and the remainder of her unfinished script will be missed.”
While Jessie spent her life writing, one of her sons, Terry Wilson shared, “To have this sort of heartening late in life was a quite a triumph for her.” Not long ago, Jessie sent a beautiful hand-made card with a personal note of thanks to the Writers’ Program:
I awake to silence
No wind chimes tinkling
No eucalyptus bowing
Gratitude pierces the dawn.
The Writers’ Program is equally grateful to have been touched by Jessie’s determination and her creative spirit. She is described by her family as a mother, sister, grandmother, wife, friend, poet, teacher, Christian Warrior, and Texan–to us she was an inspirational student who will truly be missed.
Mae Respicio is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Onsite).