By Published: May 16, 2022

William Wei will be honored on May 21 for his contributions to the Asian American community

When the Colorado Asian Culture and Education Network (CACEN) named him one of this year’s Asian American Heroes of Colorado, CU Boulder history professor William Wei couldn’t believe it.

“It was totally unexpected,” he says.

Unexpected to him, maybe, but not to anyone else. 

“Since so many Asian Americans feel so invisible, Dr. Wei has provided many platforms through his articles, research and even a book about Asian Americans in Colorado (Asians in Colorado: A History of Persecution and Perseverance in the Centennial State),” said Mary Schultz, CACEN’s communications manager and the person who nominated Wei. “Dr. Wei has uplifted Asian Americans so people in general don’t forget this community.”

Wei is no stranger to helping others. He’s been doing it for as long as he can remember, in part because of his late father, a sergeant in the U.S. Army.

“One of the things he used to tell me was (that) we should always do the right thing—the right thing by our family, friends and community—and do it for itself,” not “for any award,” Wei says.

Wei never expected an award, for example, when he was a boy in New York City and a family friend, his “aunt,” who didn’t speak much English, faced the terrifying possibility of losing her survivor’s benefits after her husband died.

If you want a society to become better, individuals and groups of individuals have to make that happen. You can’t expect it to come about naturally.”

Wei advocated for her at the Social Security office, convincing the employees there that, though her husband had passed, she was in fact alive and therefore needed support. “(I was) a little kid going over and speaking to these adults about the fact that my aunt was alive,” Wei recounts. “One day I had to physically take her there. ‘See! She’s alive!’” 

Nor did Wei expect an award when, as an undergraduate at Marquette in May 1968, he participated in a sit-in for Black athletes. “We didn’t think they were treated fairly,” Wei recalls, “so I joined this group that decided to hold a student protest.”

Wei didn’t even expect an award while serving on the board of directors for Colorado Asian Pacific United, a group that was instrumental in getting the city of Denver to apologize for failing to protect the Chinese community during the anti-Chinese race riot of Oct. 31, 1880, which destroyed Denver’s Chinatown.

Throughout his life and career, Wei has sought to improve the lives of those around him—whether they be family, friends and/or community. One thing he’s learned from these experiences is that right may be right, but that does not make it inevitable.

A position which has only been reaffirmed by his experiences as a historian.

“I firmly believe that we are a product of the past,” he says. “If you want to know who you are today, you really need to go back and look at the past and at the forces that helped to shape the society in which we live.”

But the future, the history yet to be made, Wei says, is up for grabs, a prospect that should urge all of us to consider what kind of society we want to live in.

“If you want a society to become better, individuals and groups of individuals have to make that happen,” Wei argues. “You can’t expect it to come about naturally.” Progress, in other words, requires work.

And, unfortunately, Wei says, we have our work cut out for us. “We are living in precarious times,” he says, citing the war in Ukraine, threats to democracy within the United States, the “inexorable march of climate change” and the recent rise in anti-Asian and anti-Asian American hate crimes. We must take these issues seriously if we are to resolve them, Wei adds.

I firmly believe that we are a product of the past. If you want to know who you are today, you really need to go back and look at the past and at the forces that helped to shape the society in which we live.”

Yet Wei, who has been teaching history at CU Boulder since 1980 and served as the 2019-20 Colorado State Historian, has not abandoned all hope. His expertise won’t allow him to. “As a historian, I can look forward to change, because that’s the only constant. Being a historian, or having a sense of history, is reason to give you optimism.”

Wei studies modern Chinese history and Asian American history, subjects on which he has published numerous books and articles, many of them for non-academic audiences.

“I’m a great believer,” he says, “in making sure the scholarship we engage in at the university is accessible to the public.”

There was a time, Wei explains, when his research could have gone a different route. “I was interested in Africa, Asia and Latin America,” he says. “I actually thought about becoming a professor of African history, but circumstances channeled me into Asian history.” Looking back, he’s happy with the decision. “No regrets. It’s been a great life.”

But specialties aside, with a mind that moves deftly among many subjects, including law, literature and political science, Wei remembers people telling him he could have chosen to follow a smorgasbord of career paths. “You’re smart!” they would tell him. “You should be a lawyer”—or a public-school teacher, or a this, or a that.

Nothing would deter the scholar-to-be. “I want to be a (history) professor!” Wei would insist, which was a path re-affirmed by his own professors.

“The history professors I studied with were good, good people” who “made the study of history a fascinating subject” and could “instill (students) with a sense of the moral dimensions of history,” Wei says. “Quite frankly, I wanted to be just like them.”

They were, you might say, his heroes.

Well, now Wei is officially a hero too, and will be honored as such on May 21 at the Happy Living and Wellness Center in Aurora at 10 a.m.

Celebrating him, some would maintain, is the right thing to do.

Image at the top of the page: History professor William Wei is the 2022 Asian American Hero of Colorado.