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Bill Kirby Jr.: Willie Wright doesn’t preach the Golden Rule, he lives it

“I truly believe in the Christian philosophy,” this 85-year-old community volunteer says. “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

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If you are looking for the heart and soul of all you can be, look no further in this community than to this man of heart, soul, kindness and impeccable grace, and you will come to know Willie Wright.  

He’s unassuming enough.  

He seeks no plaudits or accolades for himself.  

“I truly believe in the Christian philosophy,” Wright, 85, says. “Treat others as you want to be treated.” 

He doesn’t preach the Golden Rule.  

He lives it. 

“I’m just here,” he says, “to help people along the way.” 

And when it comes to volunteering his time in this community, you’ll find him as a poster child for everything from the Cumberland County Council on Older Adults, the Mid-Carolina Area Agency on Aging, the Cumberland County Veterans Council, the Braxton Bragg Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army, the Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra, the Arts Council of Fayetteville-Cumberland County and the Cape Fear Regional Theatre. And as chairman for a group that works with the Main Post Chapel on Fort Bragg.

 Wright is everywhere.  

“His smiling face is the first and last thing our patrons see when they join us at the theater,” says Mary Kate Burke, artistic director at Cape Fear Regional Theatre, where Wright now works as the house manager. “He has an indefatigable spirit and zest. I call him the Batman of Fayetteville. He is everywhere, from CFRT to the Greater Fayetteville Chamber breakfasts to the Crown Complex and beyond. There is rarely an event that you don't see his mirthful twinkle. And if you have a problem, he seems to appear out of nowhere and be ready to solve it.” 

 Along his life’s way 

 A native of Surry, Virginia, Wright was born the only child of Anthony Arthur Wright and Susie Elizabeth Gilliam Wright. His father worked in the Navy shipyards in Newport News, Virginia, until pneumonia took his life at age 37. His mother was a housewife and domestic. She died in 2016 at Heritage Place Senior Living on North Cool Spring Street.  

After earning a degree in education from Virginia State University, Wright enlisted as an officer in the  Army and served from 1959 until 1989, including three tours of duty in Vietnam. That was in 1964, 1966 and 1971, when he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as a tactical operations officer. He and his wife, Maxine, a third-grade teacher, found their way to Fayetteville in 1985, before Wright retired as a colonel in 1989.

 “I retired June 1, 1989, and I went to work at Fayetteville Technical Community College as a guidance counselor,” says Wright, who holds a master’s degree in personnel administration from George Washington University, a master’s in education and a master’s in school administration from Campbell University. “And then John Griffin, the principal at E.E. Smith High School, called and said, ‘I understand you have a degree in guidance and counseling.' He said, ‘You have a job tomorrow.’ I went to E.E. Smith and worked two years and then became an assistant principal.”

 He served briefly as the E.E. Smith principal after Griffin was selected as superintendent of Cumberland County Schools, and he became principal at Luther “Nick’’ Jeralds Middle School in 1992 until 2002.  

“I really loved the school,” Wright says.  

Students and parents loved Wright, too. 

“I discovered there were single working mothers with students there,” he says. “I said to our teachers, ‘What would happen if we had a program after school from 3:30 to 4:30 so we could keep children in school until mothers could get off work to pick them up.’ We got the Fayetteville State University Math Department to organize a math club and Methodist University to organize a foreign language club in Spanish and French. I got a friend to teach kids to play golf. I got a principal to teach tennis and one teacher to organize a course in music and another a drama club.”

The innovative idea on Wright’s part was a hit with students and parents alike. Wright was selected as the Wachovia Principal of the Year for 1995-1996.

He’s had a profound impact on schoolchildren from E.E. Smith High School to Nick Jeralds Middle School to Ireland Drive Middle School to T.C Berrien Elementary and Howard Hall Elementary.  

A joy in volunteering 

And when it comes to volunteering and giving of himself to the community, well, it’s just a part of  Wright. There are awards and certificates in his home from the 1999 North Carolina PTA Honorary Lifetime membership to the 2005 SCAT Volunteer of the Year award to the 2006 Fayetteville Non-Profit Leader of the Year award to the 2004 Cape Fear Regional Theatre President’s Cup to the 2009 Cape Fear Regional Theatre Beyond The Call award to the 2014 Certificate of Fayetteville Recognition to the 2015 White House Volunteer Pin to the 2016 Holidays Hometown Hero plaque to the 2017 Greater Fayetteville United Pin.

“I enjoy all of this,” he says. “And just meeting people.”  

When he’s not volunteering, there’s always time for Willie and Maxine Wright to visit their daughters – Wanda Wright Clark, director of Veterans Affairs for the state of Arizona, and Andrea Wright Valdez, marketing director for Senior Citizens Home in Hinesville, Georgia. And to dote on their four grandchildren.  

Epilogue 

What you will find in Wright is a remarkable human being. He gives much of the credit to his late mother.  

“I learned from my mother,” he says. “She was pretty strict. She always said if somebody gave you something, you have to give a thank you back.” 

Wish there was more time to tell you about Wright, but the Cape Fear Regional Theatre is calling for another performance of “The Wizard of Oz.’’

“This community,” says Burke, the theater artistic director, “is the better for Mr. Willie Wright.”

If you are looking for the heart and soul of all you can be, look no further in this community than to this man of heart, soul, kindness and impeccable grace, and you will come to know Willie Wright, and be glad you did.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

Column, Bill Kirby Jr., volunteer, Willie Wright

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