July 16, 1931–Nov. 1, 2019

The front page of the April 28, 1966, issue of the New York Times features a two-column headline reading, “Divorce Reforms, First in 179 Years, Enacted by State.” The article’s photo shows Jerome L. Wilson ’53 standing proudly at a podium beside then mayor of New York John Lindsay.

Wilson is best known as the former Democratic state senator from Manhattan who spearheaded the liberalization of New York law, which required a spouse to prove adultery as the sole way to gain a divorce. New York was the only remaining state with the 18th-century provision when the Joint Legislative Committee on Matrimonial Law, led by Wilson, recommended that the legal grounds for dissolving marriages be broadened. By the time the new law was passed on Sept. 1, 1967, four additional grounds for divorce had been appended.

“Senator Wilson not only introduced the commission bill but vigorously fought for its passage,” Howard Hilton Spellman, the chairman of the Special Committee on Matrimonial Law of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, penned in the New York Times in 1965. “He refused to be discouraged by delaying tactics and so strongly persevered in fighting for our aims that, to a great extent, the ultimate result should be credited to him.”

Earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Colgate, Wilson served in the U.S. Air Force until 1957. He then became assistant public relations director of the National Urban League, an organization dedicated to eliminating discrimination. 

Wilson launched his political career by joining the Democratic reform movement founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and other leading Democrats. At the age of 30, he was elected to the New York State Senate, representing Manhattan’s East Side. Following three terms, he became the Democratic-Liberal candidate for Congress in the 17th Congressional District but lost to Republican incumbent Theodore R. Kupferman. Afterward, he joined WCBS-TV as an on-air news correspondent, appearing regularly on the nightly news and on election night broadcasts. 

Wilson received a JD from New York University School of Law in 1971 before becoming a full-time attorney at Rogers & Wells. Leaving the international law firm in 1999, he became counsel to the New York News Publishers Association, where he developed legislation to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

Retiring from the practice of law in 2008, Wilson served as a member of both the Media Law Committee of the New York State Bar Association and the Communications Law Committee of the Bar Association of the City of New York. In addition, he wrote four volumes of his own sonnets and translated poems by Rainer Maria Rilke from German into English — two of which were published in Syracuse University’s Stone Canoe

He died at age 88 in his Essex, Conn., home. He is survived by his wife, Ulla; four daughters; two stepsons; six grandchildren; and four step-grandchildren.