When former Speaker of the House Jim Wright passed away on May 6 at the age of 92, he left more than a Washington legacy. Wright’s childhood and young adult life were greatly impacted by Weatherford, both the community and the college.
“I remember growing up next door to him, and he always talked about Weatherford College,” said Jamie Bodiford-Brinkley. “Jim loved Weatherford College. He called it Old Main, and he said some of the greatest times he had were at WC.”
Wright attended 10 different schools in seven different cities by the time he earned his high school diploma. Of all of the places he lived, he called Weatherford home.
The Wright family moved to Weatherford in 1931, just before the crippling effects of The Great Depression set in on his neighbors and family. His short time in Weatherford was filled with antics of dipping pretty girls’ hair in ink, swimming in the Curtis Creek with friends until they found out the sewer dumped in just upstream, raising chickens and meeting hobos looking to work for food as they made their way to some far-off land of promise.
The family moved to Fort Worth a year later, but Jim’s mother promised they would return one day.
“I always yearned for some place of permanence,” Wright said during a media interview in 2001 before speaking at the special event “An Evening with the Speaker” at Weatherford College. “I had been moving every year and leaving friends. It broke my heart every time I had to leave, but it taught me to be adaptable, adjustable, to make new friends quickly . . . But Weatherford was roots.”
In 1939, just after Jim graduated from Adamson High School in Dallas, the Wright family returned to Weatherford and purchased a home on the corner of Oak and Waco streets. It was a homecoming not only for Jim, but for his parents who had met at the 1912 Parker County Fair.
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“Now that it was time for college, Weatherford seemed more than ever an ideal choice,” Wright wrote in his book Weatherford Days . . . A Time of Learnin’. “By attending the local college, I could stay at home for my first two years of higher education and save a board bill for my parents.”
Wright recalled there were less than 300 students attending the Old Main campus, and tuition ran about $150 per semester.
While attending WC, Wright participated in numerous extracurricular activities including serving as the editor of The Coyote student newspaper. This title included the responsibility of selling enough advertising to cover the $60 cost of producing the bi-weekly paper. Knowing that anything made beyond production costs could go into his pocket, Wright teamed up with friend Harold Owen, and together they turned a profit of $30 apiece on their first publication.
“This was such a welcome bonanza to the two of us,” Wright wrote in Weatherford Days.
His enthusiasm didn’t stop with selling advertising for the paper, Wright was also known for writing some fiery editorials.
“We were, if nothing else, ardent devotees of free speech,” he wrote. “Our unbridled exercise of that right got Harold and me into trouble with the powers-that-be at the college on two separate occasions.”
An editorial condemning the draft as “an insult to the patriotism of American youth” and another calling for the church-affiliated school to sponsor dances caught the attention of the college’s Board of Trustees who suggested Wright be removed as editor of the paper. Instead, Professor Sam Householder, who was the faculty member in charge of The Coyote, began requiring his approval on all editorials before they went to print. Wright balked at the idea of “censorship” at first, but after a discussion of how it put his professor’s job at stake, apologized and began turning in columns for a once-over before they were published.
“That agreement was a boon to me,” Wright wrote. “There were things I learned from Sam Householder, and – little as I enjoyed admitting it – much that I needed to learn.”
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Always the joiner, Wright participated in the WC Chorus, the International Relations Club, drama and was a Yell Leader.
As part of the International Relations Club, basically a debate club, Wright participated in an annual conference in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he was elected regional vice president of the organization.
“It was fun to bring that title back to one of the smallest colleges represented at the meet,” Wright wrote. “Next to editing the college paper, my most useful experience probably came from representing our school in intercollegiate debate.”
One of his most difficult competitions was against a Kilgore College student named John Hill. The two became good friends later at the University of Texas, and Hill went on to serve as Texas Secretary of State, Attorney General and Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
Participating in drama was more a labor of love than of talent for Wright. After being cast opposite Mary Ethelyn “Mab” Lemons he tried out for every production that came along.
“She was a drama major and the student body’s most accomplished actress,” wrote Wright about the woman who would later become his wife of 30 years. (For the last 43 years of his life he was married to Betty Hay.)
A bid for student body president his sophomore year didn’t go in Wright’s favor, but did lead to his election as the editor of the school paper. He attributed this failure to providing him the “much-needed discipline of responsibility” which would benefit him later in life.
“Later, my failure to be re-elected to the State Legislature led me to concentrate on business and then to be selected mayor of Weatherford,” he wrote. “That in turn led me to Congress. A near-miss for the U.S. Senate in 1961 kept me in the House, where in 1987 I was elected Speaker. I have been fortunate. And blessed. A big part of that blessing was getting to live in Weatherford as a youth. Wherever I’ve gone, the things I learned there have gone with me. They are an inseparable part of who I am.”
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