'Chef Ra' enjoyed the high life

Lots of people knew James Wilson Jr., whether they knew him as Jimmy Wilson, Urbana's three-sport star; Rasta James, the reggae promoter; H. Rap Wilson, the radical; or Chef Ra, the High Times food columnist.

"If you're from Urbana and you don't know him, you don't get out much," said Maarten De Witte, an old friend who usually called him Jim.

Mr. Wilson brought reggae to Champaign-Urbana, set a high jump record that lasted for years, was known internationally for his cannabis-infused recipes and ran for president on a legalize-marijuana platform.

As recently as last Saturday, Chef Ra was his usual ebullient self, dancing in an aisle of the Esquire Lounge in Champaign. He died in his sleep Monday night or Tuesday morning at the age of 56.

He was born Oct. 10, 1950, in Charleston, W.Va. His father, James C. Wilson Sr., was an assistant track coach at the University of Illinois when he died in 1967. His mother, Winnie R. Wilson, a teacher and administrator in the Champaign Public School system, retired in 1996 and lives in Urbana.

Mr. Wilson, a cab driver, WEFT radio personality, ganja cooking expert and man-about-town, never married but had a million friends.

De Witte and another friend, Mick Woolf, agree he had a strong streak of privacy.

The public persona was impossible to separate from his various pursuits. His sister, Karen Wilson, recalls a streak of kindness in her older brother.

"The old ladies from the North End always asked for him when they called for a cab," she said.

De Witte said his friend was also brave. They grew up in faculty housing in Urbana and went to Yankee Ridge and Urbana High School together.

"To my recollection, he was the only black student at Yankee Ridge" (at the time), De Witte said.

His senior year, Mr. Wilson was co-captain of the football team and president of his class. When he rode on a float next to a blonde female counterpart, there were hisses and boos from some, De Witte recalled.

The family thrived on breaking barriers. Karen Wilson, an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, recalls an idyllic early childhood in West Virginia, where her father taught at a historically black college.

When James Wilson Sr. came to the University of Illinois to earn his doctorate and coach track, Junior was in fifth grade and ripped from a cocoon, she said.

His friends recall that Mr. Wilson set an Urbana High School record in the high jump that stood until Olympian Tyke Peacock broke it. He was also on the basketball and football teams.

But he was 17 when his father died, and girls, radical politics and reggae became more interesting to him than sports, De Witte recalls.

He studied film and communication at the UI, discovering Bob Marley in the process.

Reggae, Rastafarianism and marijuana were all of one culture, and Mr. Wilson segued into Rasta James, growing 5-foot dreadlocks and introducing the community to the music on WEFT.

"He may have been the longest-running personality on WEFT," said station manager Woolf, who added that the Rasta personality was a draw in fundraising for the community radio station.

He ran for president in 1984, friend John Lindell recalled, and while Ronald Reagan may not have paid much attention, the Rasta balloons attracted local interest.

Through an Urbana friend, Steve Hager, Chef Ra enjoyed a long career at High Times magazine, writing recipes, visiting Jamaica and Amsterdam to represent the magazine, and appearing in videos.

His cookbook included such recipes as Springtime Ganja Nachos, Rasta Pasta Pesto, the Ultimate Hash Brownies and "the secret to making perfect Ganja Butter."

Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Wesley United Methodist Church, Goodwin and Green, Woolf said. Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at Renner-Wikoff Funeral Home, 1900 S. Philo Road, U.

WEFT will play a tribute to his musical interests today from 8 to 10 p.m., his regular timeslot.

His obituary appears above.

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