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The Dartmouth
June 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

‘He was really a hero to me’: President emeritus James Wright remembered for his kindness, impact

The career historian, who served as Dartmouth’s 16th president, died at the age of 83.

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As Dartmouth’s 16th president, James Wright left a lasting impact on the College and the people within it. He focused on diversity and inclusion, raised $1.3 billion in a fundraising campaign that transformed the College with new facilities and expanded College faculty and financial student aid for students. Among his family and friends, he is remembered for his kindness and undying support for veterans. 

According to a College announcement on Oct. 11, Wright died at the age of 83 on Oct. 10 at his home in Hanover. At the time of his death, Wright was undergoing treatment for cancer. He is survived by his wife Susan DeBevoise Wright, whom he married in 1984, his children Jim, Ann and Michael and his grandchildren Zack, Meredith, Gus, Andrew, Patrick and Mia. He was predeceased by his grandson, Adam Wright ’17. 

“He was Dad to me,” his son Jim Wright Tu’93 said. “He was always there to give advice or guidance, talk about things with and that was really important. There are a lot of reasons I loved him but that was certainly one of them: He was always there when I needed him, to help out, get on the phone and talk through things with me.”

Wright lived a life of academic study and service to others. A Marine Corp veteran who grew up in Galena, Illinois, Wright was hired by Dartmouth’s history department in the fall of 1969 — the same year he finished his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Emeritus history professor Gene Garthwaite said he helped hire Wright and later became good friends.

“He impressed us all from the very beginning with his intelligence, and he was wonderfully trained as a historian at the University of Wisconsin, so he was easily our top candidate for that position,” Garthwaite said.

In the history department, Wright studied the progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the American west, according to Garthwaite. He taught a survey U.S. history course and senior seminar courses on American political history.

​​“His work on that subject made an important contribution to American history, despite the fact it doesn’t have the glamor that other periods have,” Garthwaite said. “His scholarship was original and very well researched, and then wonderfully written. He was a very good writer, and his analysis was always first grade. He was highly regarded in his field.”

In his years as a professor, Wright’s leadership potential was already apparent, Garthwaite said. He explained that the former history department chair, Louis Morton, had pointed out Wright’s leadership potential “early on.” 

According to emeritus Russian professor Barry Scherr, who served as provost while Wright was president, kindness was a key element of Wright’s leadership style. 

“One thing I like to emphasize about him is that he was a very kind, warm and compassionate person despite that big voice,” Scherr said, invoking Wright’s booming vocals. “He had always shown a real care for individuals and he was quick to ask about how everyone was doing, how family was doing. He tended to remember key things about everyone.”

Wright’s first few years at the College — during John Kemeny’s presidency — were marked by change, as women began matriculating at the College in 1972 and Kemeny vowed to increase the College’s Native American enrollment. According to Garthwaite, Wright worked to uphold and continue Kemeny’s efforts.

Garthwaite said that, in particular, Wright supported the start of a Native American studies department at Dartmouth during his presidency. But according to Gartwaithe, Wright’s efforts contributing to the now Native American and Indigenous studies program and other efforts to diversify the student body and faculty were met with resistance.

“The resistance to change was very, very powerful, and it could have gone in quite a different direction had it not been for his leadership,” Garthwaite said. 

In 1998, Wright began his tenure as president of the College. According to Jim Wright, he could see his father’s dedication both to the work and to his family growing up.

“My father would be working and teaching during the day. We’d eat together every night and then watch some TV and then he would often go back to work or go to his office study area in the house,” Jim Wright said. “He would work late into the night, whether it was grading or researching. He was very driven by what he was doing.”

Wright’s work as president was marked by an in-depth, historical understanding of the College, according to Scherr. Before he retired, Scherr said, Wright even considered writing an updated history of Dartmouth College. 

“That project got put to the side because of all these other things that he was doing, but I think he’s somebody who could have done a fantastic job with that,” Scherr said. “It’s almost too bad that he didn’t.”

In addition, Wright helped to pioneer the Yellow Ribbon Program, which helped private institutions of higher education partner with Veterans Affairs to support veterans. It replaced the previous GI Bill, which expanded education aid for veterans but was more targeted at state schools, student veterans association president Ryan Irving ’24, who spent four years in the Marines, said.

“He was really a hero to me. [The Yellow Ribbon Program] really opened the door to private school education to thousands of [veterans] like myself,” Irving said. “... I really talked to him frequently about different initiatives or how we could approach a problem together. Most of all, he was [always] very casual with us. We would give him the most respect ever, but he didn’t want it, he wanted to be your friend or friendly.” 

After his official retirement in 2009, Wright “didn’t really retire,” his grandson Zack Wright ’15 said. In this period, he wrote various articles and several books including “Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them,” “Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War,” and “War and American Life: Reflections on Those Who Serve and Sacrifice.” 

“He used his positioning and authority to make the world a truly better place for veterans,” Irving said. “I cannot overstate how important his work was. It is going to impact millions and millions of people over the course of history.” 

Wright’s grandson Patrick Wright ’23 also spoke about the late president’s kindness and passion in inspiring Dartmouth students. 

“He had so many interests and things he was passionate about. I think that’s what made him so great for anyone to spend time with,” Patrick Wright said. “There was a genuine connection he could find with any person he was talking to.”

Patrick Wright also recalled times that his grandfather would be approached by students while they ate together at Dartmouth, a testament to Wright’s close relationships with the student body. 

“He offered me the advice that life is meant to be lived, not planned,” Patrick Wright added. 

Zack Wright received similar advice from his grandfather. While enrolled as an undergraduate student, he often visited his grandfather — who lived in Hanover — for dinners. 

“Hearing how passionate he was about the work that he did and seeing how much he was invested in the work that he did … that really gave me perspective,” Zack Wright said.

Wright was a caring grandfather to his grandchildren. When Zack Wright was an infant, his father Jim Wright studied at the Tuck School of Business at the same time that Wright worked at Dartmouth. Zack said that on some nights when his parents and grandmother were busy, his grandfather would babysit him.

“I think that may have put him a little bit out of his comfort zone and I think I started just crying my head off,” Zack said. Wright put a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse show on the TV to try to calm Zack down, and when the theme song came on, Wright started singing along, replacing “Donald Duck” with “Zachary Duck.”

“I guess I kind of brightened up when he started singing that, and it helped me kind of calm down. So he always called me Zachary Duck,” Zack said. Later when Zack’s brother Adam was born, the two became the “Duck Brothers,” according to Jim Wright.

Beyond his relationships with his grandchildren, Wright’s compassion for others showed in the way he managed challenges and controversy while serving as president, according to Jim. He always had the ability to find common ground, Jim said. 

“Dad could see the good in people … Some advice he would give me was, ‘Today, we’ve got a polarized political environment and you don’t talk politics — you find the things that you agree on,’” he said. “Whether it was working with the students or the alums or faculty I think they all agreed on wanting a stronger and better Dartmouth and then talking about ways to do that, and I think he just had this ability to find the common ground.”

Wright’s caring nature came through yet again, when the family was grieving the loss of Wright’s grandson, Adam Wright ’17, in 2017, Jim said.

“He was involved in eulogizing Adam, and he did it — like everything — with such grace and dignity and warmth,” Jim said.  “It wasn’t a great time, but the way he spoke about Adam during that period of time was certainly helpful to us, as we were all dealing with a really difficult time.” 

According to Jim, Wright shared a poem from the 17th century poet Matsuo Basho at Adam’s memorial service, which read: “The temple bell stops / But I still hear the sound coming / Out of the flowers.”

“I think that sounds kind of appropriate for Dad too,” Jim said after sharing the poem. “Just because someone passes away, you still hear the sound coming out of the flowers, you still hear them over time as long as you keep telling their stories and talking about them. That was something we were encouraged to do when Adam passed away and certainly something we’ll continue to do with my father.”

The co-author of this piece, Jackie Wright ’26, is not related to James Wright.