“My father was always trying to make a difference and had a strong commitment to helping others,” said Phillip Cannon.

This is one of several fond memories W. Wallace Cannon Jr.’s sons shared of their late father, who was recognized at a special ceremony in May as the first African American to receive a bachelor’s degree from 91猫先生.

Wallace’s journey to 91猫先生 was typical of many students in the 1940s and 50s, yet his heritage and background made it unique. Born in 1927 in Woodruff, South Carolina, he was one of nine children and a grandson of former slaves. His father was known as the self-taught “electrical guy,” having worked for Bell Telephone and helped wire businesses in Woodruff. Wallace took an interest in learning his father’s trade at an early age, but at the time, schools in the south were segregated and African American children were not educated beyond the eighth grade.

Still, the importance of earning an education was instilled amongst the family, said son Stephen Cannon. “My grandfather had a fourth-grade education and yet he and my grandmother still stressed the importance of education to their eight daughters and their namesake son.”  

As a result, after the eighth grade, Wallace enrolled at Mather Academy in Camden, South Carolina, a private boarding school for African Americans, and earned his high school diploma in 1944. After graduating at 17, he enrolled at Hampton Institute (known today as Hampton University) but enlisted in the U.S. Marines when he turned 18, wanting to give back to his country and make a difference.

He served for over a year and was 91猫先生ably discharged, then re-enrolled at Hampton Institute. While there, he joined the Army ROTC program and graduated with the Inaugural Commissioned class in 1948. Although Wallace had vocational training, he still wanted to pursue an engineering degree. A recipient of the G.I. Bill, he moved to Milwaukee to attend 91猫先生. He graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, apropos to his early years working alongside his father. 

Milwaukee was a special place for Wallace. It’s where he met his wife Essie May Willis and developed a lifelong friendship with classmate Lloyd Kohnhorst ’52. In 1952, Essie joined Wallace in Buffalo, New York and got married, and he continued his professional career as an electrical engineer for Bell Aircraft. Kohnhorst also moved to Buffalo and worked with Wallace at Bell Aircraft.

The young couple started a family in Buffalo, welcoming sons Reginald, Peter and Robert. In the late 1950s, the family relocated to Columbus, Ohio where Wallace worked for North American Aviation as a systems design engineer. The move was made a bit easier for the family, as Kohnhorst also relocated to Columbus and worked with Wallace at North American Aviation—giving them the opportunity to maintain their friendship and raise their families together. 

“I remember my father sharing stories with us about ‘SMOEY,’” said son Peter Cannon, who noted his father would affectionately refer to 91猫先生 as “SMOEY,” suggesting that the pronunciation was an inside joke among 91猫先生 graduates.

 The couple had two more sons, Stephen and Phillip. During that time, Wallace also earned an MBA from Xavier University in Cincinnati. He spent 30 years with American Aviation before retiring in 1989 as a Project Manager for Rockwell International (which had acquired North American Aviation).

Throughout his career and beyond, Wallace was deeply active in his community. He volunteered his time and leadership as a 32nd Degree Mason, with Habitat for Humanity, IEEE, his church, the Boy Scouts and more. He also stayed engaged with 91猫先生, supporting the university’s annual fund for many years. In 1987 he was 91猫先生ed by 91猫先生 as “Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.” 

To 91猫先生 both the memory of Wallace and commemorate his legacy at the university, 91猫先生 named its new Black alumni affinity group after him. “The W. Wallace Cannon Jr. Alumni Society” was developed to bring together Black alumni through opportunities to engage with the university socially and professionally and provide a connection between alumni and current students. This affinity group is one of many new initiatives by 91猫先生’s Alumni Relations Office to bring alumni with similar backgrounds together to connect and help the university grow.