William Wallace Pearson died peacefully at home in Davis on Tuesday, July 18, 2017, from complications following hip surgery. Bill was born in Troy, Ohio, on April 20, 1922, to the union of Oscar Wallace Pearson and Marion Mabry Simpson. Bill grew up in Sumner, Mississippi, where his mother's family lived. He graduated from Staunton Military Academy and attended the University of Mississippi before graduating with honors in English from the University of North Carolina.
Bill joined the Army Air Force in 1942 and trained as a fighter pilot, but the war ended before he saw combat duty. After the war he took over the management of his family's cotton plantation near Webb, Mississippi. He married Erie Elizabeth Bobo in 1947, and their daughter and only child, Erie, was born in 1949.
When Bill returned home to the Mississippi Delta, he found farmworkers living in exceedingly poor conditions. Sharecroppers were often treated badly by landowners. Bill fired the farm's white overseer and promoted a black mechanic who worked as farm manager for 30 years until his retirement. Always searching for a better way to farm, Bill introduced the "skip-row" planting pattern to the Mississippi Delta, experimented with using geese to weed his crops and collaborated with seed developers to field-test new varieties. In 1964 Bill attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School, a program for high-level executives in leadership and management skills. The only cotton farmer in his class, he made life-long friends from all over the world.
During the 1960's and beyond, Bill and Betty were active in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, and Bill served on the first bi-racial delegation to the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968.
Bill's progressive attitude towards workers and innovations in farming practices earned him widespread recognition. In 1983 he won the Cotton Grower Cotton Achievement Award for his contributions to the field, and his history as a farmer was featured in David Halberstam's best-selling book "The Fifties."
When not out in the field, Bill could invariably be found reading. He was a long-time member of the Wolf River Book Club in Memphis, which included Civil War historian Shelby Foote. Having written his undergraduate thesis on William Faulkner, Bill was a supporter of the annual Faulkner Festival sponsored by the University of Mississippi. For many years he hosted a lunch for festival participants on the "Delta tour," where he regaled guests with his knowledge of
literature and Southern history.
In 2008 Bill and Betty moved to University Retirement Community to be closer to their daughter and her husband. Despite moving from the place he'd called home for over 80 years, Bill made numerous friends, including many much younger friends. At 95, he inspired all who knew him with his erudition, mental clarity, sense of humor and gentle warmth. A lover of word-play, Bill never let a grandchild's birthday pass by without penning a limerick for the occasion.
Bill was predeceased by his sister, Patricia Pearson Meriwether, and by his parents, Oscar Wallace Pearson and Marion Pearson Dunn. He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Betty Bobo Pearson; his daughter, Erie Pearson Vitiello and her husband Michael Vitiello; his granddaughter, Elizabeth Vitiello and her wife Janelle Ruley; and his grandson, James Vitiello. Other survivors include nieces Betty Bobo Adkins and her husband Marty and Charlotte M. Wrather and her husband Chris; and nephews Bob Bobo III and his wife Candy, Kirk Bobo and his wife Anne Craig, Jack Bobo and his wife Mary Martha, and Joel Bobo and his wife Leslie.
A memorial service for Bill will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Yolo Hospice, P.O. Box 1014, Davis, CA 95617 or to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36104.