Alysia Wilson Obituary
By Reed Martin
Special To The Miami Herald
June 3, 2011
As the OAS Private Sector Forum opened Friday morning, June 3 in El Salvador, the 300 leading business and government executives attending from around the hemisphere were asked to stand in a moment of silence to remember the accomplishments and the force of nature that was Alysia Wilson. It was the first time that the U.S. Commerce Department Project Director for Latin America who had helped organize the event since its inauguration in 2005 was unable to attend. The Miami native and 43-year-old wife and mother of two who died May 30 just 12 months after being diagnosed with Stage-4 spinal, lung, and brain cancers.
A life-long athlete and celebrated member of the Gables High “Gablettes” dance team during her high school years, Wilson defied stereotypes and took her intellect, academic credentials and unparalleled people skills to senior roles within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Wilson grew up a short jog from the Biltmore Hotel and attended Coral Gables Elementary and Ponce de Leon Junior High before pursuing a career that took her far from the trees that lined Country Club Prado to the leading business centers of Europe, Asia and Latin America on behalf of the U.S. government.
What former classmates, friends and family in Miami recall most vividly was her ability and eagerness to connect with every type of person and her flair for making others feel important, heard and validated. “Alysia possessed a unique combination of intelligence, beauty and kindness,” recalled childhood friend Sarah Clasby Engel. “She had an infectious smile for those who were fortunate enough to cross her path and everyone felt happier just being around her.”
Gables High School classmate Julie Adams recalls the fear and uncertainty she felt transferring from Westminster, misgivings that were swept away by Wilson’s efforts to smooth the transition. “I didn’t know a lot of people and she was so sweet to introduce me to everyone she knew” Adams recalled. “She always was so nice to people and as a result was kind of like a Gables ambassador. Alysia was such a kind girl and that willingness to help others never left her.”
Indeed, in her role as Director of Programs for the Western Hemisphere for the U.S. Department of Commerce, a division of the executive branch, Wilson developed and implemented programs in good governance, corporate social responsibility, and was herself the chief architect of the annual Americas Competitiveness Forum. This event attracts a veritable Who’s Who of Fortune 500 CEO’s and business leaders from throughout the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and The Caribbean, to discuss strategies for increasing competitiveness in the Western Hemisphere.
“The thing she did probably more than anybody else here was to inspire people,” said her boss at The Commerce Department, Walter Bastian, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere. “Everyone knows the person who is loved by everybody and whom everyone speaks highly of but I’ve never seen an outpouring of emotion and caring at this level as I have seen for Alysia. She had a young staff, but she really empowered people and got them to do their best work. Two staffers who work for me who had also worked for Alysia said that she was their role model, period. Alysia balanced her home life with her work life, she was creative, and she had an incredibly positive outlook.”
Not surprisingly, Wilson’s early innate skills at bringing people together served her well in her chosen career. “She was really adept at cutting through grievances and impasses and getting to the heart of the matter while also making people feel as if somehow they hadn’t lost any ground,” Bastian continued. “When presented with a problem, Alysia had the ability to get right to the heart of it, to identify the focal point and find the quickest way to achieve a solution. She achieved this by making everyone feel like they had been heard and had been able to get their points across, that they were all contributing, and that everyone was on the same ship, together.”
Born February 15, 1968 in West Kendall Baptist Hospital, Alysia Michelle Wilson spent her childhood in Coral Gables climbing Banyan trees with neighborhood friends along Country Club Prado until dusk and playing elaborate games of hide-and-seek that often spanned three different houses along her block. She attended Coral Gables Elementary School where she participated in drama and dance and later Ponce de Leon where she participated in ballet, modern dance, an flamenco.
Her mother Lynn Wilson, founder of Lynn Wilson Associates in Miami, a leading international interior design firm, had been a dancer in her college days at University of Miami and had passed along the love of dance from her own mother Alice Jean Anderson who had been one of the Rockettes in New York. In junior high the youngest Wilson continued to dance, at one point earning the nickname “Frogger,” and gravitated toward popular MTV bands at the time such as The Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, and Cheap Trick. Friends from that era believe that had director John Hughes met Wilson at the time, he might have been inspired to pen a second Eighties classic about a much-loved high school student whose charisma cut across cliques and social rankings to bring people together.
After attending American University and Georgetown for her undergraduate studies in international affairs, Wilson met her husband, Christopher Hernandez-Roy, as a student at Cambridge in 1992 where she also studied international affairs. “I was standing on a street corner waiting for a friend and I was waiting for him and he was late, as he would almost always be. And Alysia rode by on her bicycle,” recalled Hernandez-Roy, today Director of Democratic Sustainability and Special Mission with the Organization of American States (OAS). “Since my friend was already late, I followed her into the stationary shop and I bought some pens and paper and when I bumped into her I said: ‘Hey! Aren’t you in this class with so-and-so?’ Then we went to a nearby pub which is something everybody does in England.”
The couple were married on Miami Beach on February 10, 1996 and explored the Yucatan Peninsula and Mayan ruins on their honeymoon. The couple raised two children, Lucas and Isabel, and lived in Washington, D.C. and later Alexandria, Virginia.
In early June 2010 Wilson was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 42 after going to the doctor for what she thought was gall bladder pain. Doctors told her she should celebrate Christmas a few weeks early.
Lynn Wilson said her daughter – who never smoked and was a lifelong athlete – told her she believed that asbestos in her building at The Commerce Department where she worked for 12 years, may have been the cause of her tumors but did not file a complaint, instead opting to pour her fight into her battle with cancer. She was able to survive an additional 12 months and participate in one last year of holidays and birthdays. “There were so many events that she wanted to stay alive for and she was able to do that, with her courage determination and will,” said her mother. “She never gave up the hope that she would beat her cancer. She never gave that up.”
In her last months she sent an e-mail to her Gables High School friend Ray Williams, whom she had caught up with at her 20-year high school reunion in 2006: “Hi Ray. Thanks for your concern, but don’t be sad for me. Right now I need all the hope and prayers I can get. It’s bad, but I am going to fight as hard as I can. And I know with my friends pulling for me, I will win! Thanks for your phone call the other day. Calls are a little bit difficult for me right now, one because of the location of my tumors makes it a bit hard to speak and I am trying to save my voice and two, I am still a bit emotional. But I will be better. Thanks for thinking of me. – A”
That was the last communication he received. As her illness confined her first to a wheelchair and then to a bed, Wilson reached out to friends and family through shorter and shorter SMS messages.
“On my last visit with her in December of 2010, Alysia and I sent each other text messages while I was upstairs in my bed and she was downstairs in hers,” recalls step-sister Marizy Gaskell. “She wrote: ‘I believe the heart has no bounds when it comes to love,’ and that was Alysia. She loved everyone – she never saw a reason not to. She took a deep, personal interest in people she met and in their stories, and was genuinely involved in their enthusiasm and genuinely empathetic toward their sadness. In her eyes everyone was talented, significant, and had a contribution to make to the world. Alysia has left me with a head full of memories – fun, goofy, whimsical, memories – and she has left me with a heart full of love that is whole and complete.”
Most people misinterpret the phrase “life is short,” thinking the admonition is a silly fortune cookie warning that they may reach 80 before they know it. However, Wilson’s schedule of radiation and chemotherapy at 42 and untimely passing at 43 shows that more often than not it means anyone can receive bad news long before they have a chance to fully savor everything a person dreams of: a dynamic career on the upswing, a doting and adoring spouse, two young children, and the flextime to take walks, work out and do yoga. It also means that on any random day people may be forced to gather up whatever fleeting memories and experiences can be had in time for the inevitable endpoint of a terminal prognosis. Toward the end, Wilson’s mother would sit by her bed and remind her of a favorite book from childhood.
“Growing up her carpet was the color of a golf course with tulip wallpaper on the ceiling and her bedspread and it was like My Secret Garden [by Frances Hodgson Burnett] and we always told stories about her Secret Garden when she was little,” said her mother Lynn Wilson. “I would tell her how she would be in her Secret Garden and smelling the flowers and the breeze would blow and ultimately she would become like a fairy or firefly that would fly around the garden and fly up into the clouds and she would look down from the clouds and then sprinkle her stardust at night. And so in her last month when it was apparent that she was really going downhill and only opening her eyes very rarely when there was music, I would tell her all of these same stories about fireflies and snowflakes. Her last days I spent a lot of time talking to her and whispering in her ear about The Secret Garden and going through the flowers and over the rivers and over the hills with the dragonflies, butterflies, and bumblebees. I would tell her that she would get to be with the other angels and fairies together and do a little chorus dance on top of the clouds. She knew I was there in her last days. Even when she couldn’t open her eyes and she could no longer talk, she would get a little smile on her face and I knew she could hear me.”
In March 2011, two months before she died, Hernandez-Roy was able to take Wilson, a lifelong fan of Miami Beach and of walking by the sea, to Virginia Beach in her wheelchair to put her feet in the sand and watch her children play in the surf. “It was a magical moment for all of us but especially for someone who grew up loving the beach and the ocean,” he recalled. “She was able to get her feet wet as the waves rolled in, and feel the sand on her feet one last time. It brought her a tremendous amount of joy and peace and it’s a day our kids will always remember.”
Alysia Michelle Wilson is survived by her mother Lynn Vinocur Wilson of Coral Gables, her father Larry Wilson, brothers Scott Wilson of Miami, and Larry Wilson of Atlanta, step brothers Patrick Spohrer of San Diego, step sister Marizy Gaskell of Coral Gables, step-father Bill Spohrer founder of Air Florida and president of Challenge Air Cargo, husband Christopher Hernandez-Roy of Alexandria, Virginia and children Lucas 9 and Isabel 6.