One of the last pictures of Wright was taken with the remaining original faculty members a few weeks before his death.
From left are Sallie Joyner Davis, Mamie Jenkins, Wright, Kate Lewis, Maria Graham and Leon Meadows.
The Day Wright Died
Marshals representing the Poe and Lanier literary societies serve as honor guards at President Robert Wright’s funeral.
sense of accomplishment pervaded the campus in the spring of 1934 as East Carolina Teachers College eagerly anticipated celebrating its 25th anniversary. Committees were planning several gala dinners and a lavish stage production retelling the school’s founding and growth.
There was much to celebrate. In 25 years the school had grown from 175 students to more than 1,000. The faculty had grown from a dozen to 90. The two-year teacher training school had blossomed into a fully accredited four-year college with graduate studies. Its president, Robert H. Wright, had achieved national recognition for his progressive methods.
From that emotional high the campus fell into disbelief and despair at 10:30 a.m. on April 23, a Monday, when word came that Wright had suffered a heart attack while working at his desk in the new administration building. The only leader East Carolina had known died two days later, about a month short of his 64th birthday.
The faculty committee planning the anniversary events, led by Mamie Jenkins and Emma Hooper, instead began composing Wright’s eulogy and planning his funeral.
Wright’s funeral was held in the new assembly hall that later would be named for him. In the hours before the service, an honor guard of representatives from student organizations was changed three times an hour so that every group could participate. Among the mourners was junior William Wright ’35, the second oldest of Wright’s four children.
On the day he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Greenville, Wright seemed to speak from the grave in an op-ed article published under his byline in that day’s Raleigh News & Observer. He had written an essay on the future of teacher training and mailed it the week before. He closed the article saying, “The education of tomorrow must carry the three R’s, plus. It must carry with it character, intelligence, and a realization of our human obligations one to another.”
A statewide tribute to Wright was held on campus in December at which Frank Porter Graham, president of the new Consolidated University of North Carolina, extoled him as a remarkable leader. “Dr. Wright knew more about teacher training than any other educational leader in this part of the United States,” Graham said.
The campus mourned for four years.
A figurative and literal turning of the page came in 1938 when Wright was memorialized in a special 98-page edition of the Teachers College Quarterly
. In it, T. Wingate Andrews, a nationally known educator who was a classmate of Wright’s at Chapel Hill, wrote that, “In character and to some extent in appearance he reminded me of Abraham Lincoln. I recall no better characterization of (Wright) than Edwin Markham’s poem in which the poet refers to Lincoln as a lordly cedar going down and leaving a lonesome place against the sky.”