KENLEY WADE June 19, 1935-June 2, 2022

A legacy of fighting racism in Springfield and beyond

Kenley Wade was so accomplished in his career that he was admitted into one of the nation’s most prestigious MBA programs, even though he had never earned an undergraduate degree.

The Springfield civil rights leader left behind behind a legacy of fighting racism in Springfield and beyond.

“He was very, very smart,” his daughter Francine Coleman said. “And when I think about the opportunities that he had – or did not have – at the time that he was growing up and then consider what he was able to do with his life, I think that he was really accomplished.”

Wade graduated from Springfield’s Feitshans High School in 1953. In 1959 he became one of the first African Americans to become a manager within the Kroger grocery store chain.

Like many things within his life, he had to fight for it, said Sister Marcelline Koch, who served with Wade on the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism.
“They offered leadership training and he took the training, did very well in it, and he went to his supervisor and said, ‘OK, now that I’ve done this and you know, I did quite well in it, what does that mean for me here?’ And basically the supervisor said, ‘Oh, that isn’t for you.’

It’s was not going to help him at all because he was a person of color,” Koch said.

Despite being rebuffed by his white supervisor, he persevered and moved into management.

From 1967 to 1971, Wade was the director of the Community Action Agency in Peoria.

“He interviewed against I think five or six other candidates who had a lot more education than my dad had,” Coleman said. “But he was chosen based on his experience and ability to present that experience over people who had degrees. He was given a director role. This was back in the late ‘60s. … That just really shows his ability as a leader.”

After leaving Community Action Agency, he returned to Springfield to work for the state of Illinois under then-Gov. Dan Walker.

Wade was someone who liked to take on tasks bigger than himself, said his longtime partner, Virginia Conlee.

“He was always a little guy, but he loved sports and he would insist on going out for sports. He played football, loved golf and was a very physically active person, especially given his size. … He took a lot of beatings in terms of his body, but he kept going,” she said.

His concern for civil rights stemmed from the discrimination he had faced, Conlee said.

“Well, I think partially it came from how he had been treated many times in his life,” she said. “And it didn’t stop him. It just made him more interested in succeeding. So, he tried to help others do that too.”

Despite the longevity of their relationship, neither Conlee nor Wade chose to wed. “I would say we were boyfriend and girlfriend for 30, 40 years. … He wasn’t divorced when I first met him. He was not living with his spouse, but it took him a long time to get divorced. (Mary Lee Leahy) was Ken’s attorney for his divorce. And she used to say it was the world’s longest divorce project.”

The marriage produced five children.

Daughter Francine Coleman said he was passionate about paving the way for his children and others to succeed.

“My dad was very outspoken. He liked to be involved in the community. He was a member of the Boys and Girls Club board. In Peoria, he was part of the Urban League and was always very much a community leader.

“When my older brother and sister were in high school, the school district was starting to bus children back and forth and my dad had no problem going up to the school and saying, ‘You know, I moved here so my kids can go to a better school.

You’re not going to bus them out of here.’ I think about my dad and my mom, honestly, with their limited college education, they were both very smart and willing to stand up for what they believed in.”

It was that intelligence and his experience as a manager that led him to an unusual education path.

He applied to the MBA program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management without first earning a bachelor’s degree.

“He did not have a bachelor’s degree,” Coleman said. “He had just a few hours actually, of undergraduate credits, but no real degree. What he was able to do was use his professional experience to show that he had the experience and knowledge and he was able to go to Northwestern and get his master’s.”

Sister Koch said Wade’s life experiences served him well in many ways. “I think his legacy for this community is that he fought for it to be a more equitable place for everyone.”

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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