The Wright Stuff

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Writes Steve Berger:

Robert (“Bobby”) Wright deceased quietly and unexpectedly in his sleep on November 28, 2012, in Orange, Virginia, with as little fanfare as a giant tree silently falling in a deserted forest. Per his wishes, there will be no service or burial ceremony. He leaves behind no children or spouse. Eerily, a few years ago, his long-time girlfriend and companion died in her sleep while by his side. I refuse, however, to let Bobby depart us with so little fuss and muss.

Forty years ago, Bobby was an integral part of my life when I was a middle-schooler at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. During  7th and 8th grade, we were nearly inseparable best friends, tackling a demanding private school curriculum, playing competitive sports, and shooting hoops year round. In our fantasy one-on-one games, Bobby was always one of his beloved Philadelphia 76ers (mimicking Hal Greer’s unorthodox jumper or Wilt the Stilt’s finger roll) and usually bested my poor man’s imitation of my Celtic heroes, Sam Jones and Bill Russell. At least the Celtics got the better end of the bargain in real life! Bobby was a faculty brat at the time. His father, Emmett Wright, Jr., chaired Westminster’s history department and led Westminster’s varsity basketball team to a state championship in 1967. That championship team’s run was spearheaded by Bobby’s older brother Jimmy, a pesky firefly of a point guard who calmly swished a thirty-five footer at the buzzer to secure the school’s title. At the end of 8th grade, Bobby and his family moved to Louisiana and then a few years later up to Virginia where Emmett became the headmaster at the illustrious Woodberry Forest School.

Out of sight became out of mind for me as I literally went 40 years without contact with Bobby. Then, as fate would have it, a few years ago I joined the investment board at the University of Virginia and became aware that older brother Jimmy was the president of the University’s Jefferson Scholars Foundation. Jimmy gave me Bobby’s email address, and a best friendship was renewed. For the next three years, almost on a daily basis, Bobby would send me several messages a day.  Although it had been decades since we had communicated, our avocations dovetailed as if we hadn’t skipped a beat: basketball, tennis, history, political philosophy, investment markets, literature, basketball, and more basketball!

By conventional standards, it is hard for Bobby to measure up to the accomplishments of his dad and brother. His dad was a legendary teacher, coach, and administrator. Older brother Jimmy left an indelible mark on high school athletics and has built the Jefferson Scholars Foundation into a worldwide presence. By contrast, Bobby suffered from a severely disabling case of tinnitus (persistent inner ear ringing) that made day-to-day functioning, much less retaining employment, often a Herculean feat. To my way of thinking, Bobby’s accomplishments and contributions were no less impressive. He returned to Orange, Virginia, to care for his father who is in the final innings of a struggle with the ravages of a stroke and prostate cancer. Bobby was a model of grace, humor, courage, and insatiable intellectual curiosity. He took to heart Mark Twain’s prescription to never let his schooling interfere with his education. I am not sure if I ever met anyone as well or as widely read. It was as if the sleeplessness often symptomatic of tinnitus gave him free rein to keep the local libraries in business. He was a skeptic, in the purest philosophic sense, accepting nothing at face value until he had exhaustively searched for the truth. He had an acerbic wit, dismissive of intellectual pomposity, yet was graced with true compassion for the less fortunate and the persecuted. I am sure many of his former students were equally enriched by his wide-ranging and humorous insights, pearls of wisdom, and historical arcana.

Oddly enough, my communications with Bobby these last few years were entirely by email, a telling sign of how I unfortunately have become a card-carrying member of the text generation. Although I still had not seen or spoken to Bobby in over 40 years, his loss is no less heartbreaking or palpable. If the true measure of man’s life is the impact he had on others for the good, I am sure Bobby had the wright stuff. The parting sign-off on all of his messages was “Hang in there.” I wish he were around to tell me that now. I suspect there are many who did hear that giant tree fall in Orange, Virginia, this week and are equally saddened by the loss of this hidden jewel of a man.

3:22 pm on November 30, 2012