Sunday Interview with Dr. Robert Wright: 'God takes us where he wants us to go'

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 26, 2014 

Almost 60 years ago, Robert Wright left one Columbus for another.

The 1955 Spencer High graduate moved from the segregated South to attend Ohio State University.

The opportunity to become an optometrist did not exist for Wright and other blacks in the Jim Crow South.

His father was a brick mason with a sixth-grade education and his mother was a nurse.

"I didn't have a scholarship," Wright said last week. "They paid it all out of their pocket. I like to tell people my dad educated my brother and I one brick at a time."

What was built was an amazing story of a man who became a successful optometrist, city councilor, pioneer in the Republican party, ultrasuccessful businessman and philanthropist.

Wright, now 77, talked about his journey during an interview with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

What were the educational opportunities for you coming out of Spencer?

Well, I guess it depends on your perspective. Of course, there were always good schools coming out of high school. Tuskegee, Morehouse, Savannah State -- pretty much African-American schools down South because schools were segregated here.

The University of Georgia was not an option, right?

No, it was not.

How did you decide on Ohio State University?

Interesting enough, there was an optometrist in town, Dr. Perrott. I was one of his patients. My aunt once suggested to me maybe I should look into being an optometrist. I knew I wanted to go into the medical field. The University of Georgia didn't have a school, anyway. And even if it had a school, it would have been segregated and I couldn't have gotten in. There were two schools in the South -- one in Memphis and one in Texas. They were also segregated. There were only 11 optometry schools in the country at that time.

Any of them predominantly black?

Oh, no. All of them at big universities like IU (Indiana), Penn State, Ohio State. Schools like that, mostly in the North and Northeast. I happened to be watching the 1954 Rose Bowl game with Ohio State and Southern Cal. I saw that game and I saw that band and said that is where I want to go to school. I applied. I got in. I was lucky enough to graduate and finish.

How many people were in your Spencer graduating class?

I would say about 150.

How many went to integrated universities?

Many went into the service. Others went to other colleges. I don't know anyone out of my class who may have gone to a large university like Ohio State. But we had some good students who went to some outstanding universities and colleges.

What was the most striking difference between Columbus, Ga., and Columbus, Ohio, in 1955?

(Laughter) Going from a segregated society into an integrated society was a big difference for me. Even when I went to Ohio State and had to take my entrance exams, I had never sat next to a white student in my life. It was a new and frightening experience for me. I ended up flunking all of my entrance exams.

What did you do?

I started my college life taking remedial math and English. I flunked my English and math exams. I think part of it was fright. And, maybe I just wasn't quite prepared for that big university at that time.

Did you think about coming home?

No. I never thought about coming home. I am not a quitter. I just had to figure it out: "How can I work around this?" I took those remedial courses and I did well in them. As a result of that it gave me some courage I could perform. At that time, optometry was a five-year curriculum. I finished that and graduated on time with my class.

Your dad was a brick mason, right?

He built the first buildings at Columbus State University. He built Clubview Elementary School. I worked with him up there on that school during the summer.

If you look around Columbus and Phenix City, you see a lot of successful black people whose fathers were brick masons: you and and your brother, Bill; the Lowe brothers; and Hugh Ogletree, a dentist over in Phenix City. Is that a coincidence?

Being a brick mason, that is a highly skilled trade. But it is hard work. My dad used to take me out with him on the jobs in the summer when I was in high school. I carried bricks. I carried water. He said, "You come out here in this sun and you are going to stay in school." And he was right.

I do think those brick layers imparted some things to us that resonates with my brother and I, the mayor (Eddie Lowe) and others. One, hard work pays off. They were dedicated to their trade. When work ran out around Columbus, they would get in their cars and they would go to other places, a lot of times outside the South where the wages were higher. As I like to tell people, every weekend my dad would send my mom his check. That had a profound effect on me and my brother -- and I am sure the mayor and others, too. It shows responsibility and commitment to family. That is something my dad instilled in me -- hard work pays off.

You ride around town and see buildings he built. What is that like?

It brings a smile to my face. He was special.

What did you do when you finished college?

When I finished Ohio State, I did come home for the summer with the anticipation I would only be here for a short time. I had already applied for my commission in the Army Medical Service Corps. I was just awaiting orders. I never got orders. I got a rejection because they discovered I had asthma as a child.

I had already gone down to Muscogee Chevrolet -- Bill Heard's dad's company -- and picked out a brand new Impala Chevrolet that I was going to get as soon as I got my commission. But that didn't happen.

A friend told me there were two optometrist positions posted at Fort Benning. I went out and applied for them. When I walked in, they discovered I was black and they took those positions down. The only thing I could do at that point was go back to Ohio for a year. Then I came home.

Did you open a practice here?

I did.

Was the medical community segregated then?

Of course. Separate entrances. Separate water fountains. Separate waiting rooms.

You were the first black optometrist in Columbus, right?

I was the only one for a long time. I began to get more involved in politics, moving around the country, then Dr. Emerson Brown came to town and took over my practice. Then, they decided they wanted to move to Savannah, and Dr. Brel Clark came and took my practice.

How has the medical community changed in Columbus since you started here?

Oh, it has changed tremendously. I have to give Dr. Delmar Edwards a lot of credit for that. He was an absolute pioneer -- the first black surgeon to come to town. Had it not been for doctors (Abe) Conger and (S.A.) Roddenbery sticking their reputations out on the line, that probably never would have happened. He opened a lot of doors. Now, in Columbus there are probably 75 black physicians.

Were you and Dr. Edwards close?

He was my best friend. And we built a building down on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street together.

What made Dr. Edwards special?

First of all he was probably one of the brightest people I have met. Two, he was exactly 10 years older than I. He had been in the military. He provided a lot of guidance and mentoring. We were great friends. Sometimes I would get down on city council and do something crazy and he would scold me, then he would say, "You know, 10 years ago I would have done the same thing." Then he would say, "Let's figure out how we are going to get out of this mess." He was that type of friend.

Let's talk politics. You first ran for city council when?

In 1970 -- the first consolidated government. I had been a community activist. I had been involved in every worthwhile activity that had been going on around town. I just thought that was the right thing to do. I gave a speech at Ohio State to the optometry class last year. When you go to an optometrist to get your eyes examined, we say, "Which is better, 1 or 2?" In my speech to those students I said it can't be just 1 and 2. One, do your best in the exam room, but two, get out in your community and do your best to support your community. I always believed that, lived that. And I believe that today. We got to work hard at what we do, but we also have to work hard at giving back.

Was the consolidated city/county government the right thing?

Absolutely the right thing. I think we see the fruits of that today.

You are head of the Crime Prevention Committee. Do you wish you had consolidated law enforcement?

(Laughter) Some (agencies) are mandated by state law. I don't know how you can just consolidate some of those constitutionally mandated functions. I do believe in consolidation up and down the line. Maybe at some point in time that will happen, also.

Was former Mayor J.R. Allen a visionary?

Yes. He was the reason I became a Republican. I was going to run for city council anyway. He approached me about running and I told him I planned to run. He said, "I want to talk to you about running as a Republican." I said, "You got to be crazy." (Laughter). This was 1970.

There were not a lot of black Republicans back then?

Those that were black and Republican were like my granddad, who remembered the Abraham Lincoln days. You know what I am saying? J.R. changed my life. That decision was probably the most profound decision that I ever made. My getting elected was my springboard to Washington. And had I not gotten an opportunity to go to Washington as a consultant to Chairman (William) Brock, who was chairman of the (Republican) party at the time, and being able to interact with the political players … it made a huge difference in my life.

I went to work in the Reagan Administration. I worked with a lot of different campaigns back then. Sen. McConnell -- he was running for county commissioner at the time -- I helped him on his campaign back in the '70s. I know people like that on a first-name basis.

J.R. made a compelling argument. He said, "Look, I know the image of a Republican in the black community, but we are talking about Columbus, Ga., and we need to get something done around this town. The same people who are trying to keep you down on the Democratic side are the same people I got to work around to get elected. We can do this as a Republican party because it is just sitting there bare." I said, "You know what, you are making some sense here." He came down to my office and made the pitch.

What was the reaction in the black community? Were you ostracized?

I wasn't ostracized because I worked too hard in the community and my family had a good name in this community. My grandfather William Talley worked at this post office down here for 45 years. He was the treasurer of First African Baptist Church for over 40 years. I had a good family foundation. My dad and my mom were very active in the community and active in their churches. There were some people who were disappointed. Quite frankly, some said they remembered when I was a baby in my mother's arms, but they could not vote for me because I was a Republican. Then I ended up running against my chemistry teacher, T. Milton Lowe, who was also well known in the community. I prevailed, and he and I have always been great friends.

How would Columbus be different today if J.R. Allen had not died in that plane crash?

I think there was momentum at the time that happened because he was definitely a visionary. Bob Hydrick succeeded him and was able to maintain that vision and that momentum. Unfortunately, he did not get re-elected. After he did not get re-elected, part of the J.R. dream began to die. Ultimately, we think J.R. was probably going to run for governor.

Do you think he would have been governor?

I think he most definitely had a great chance. He had gotten very much involved in the Georgia Municipal Association. They liked his vision. He was up in Rome talking about the vision of consolidation when he lost his life. He was all over the state.

Do you remember where you were when they told you about the plane crash?

I was awakened by a phone call from Mayor Pro-Tem A.J. McClung at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. That is probably the worst middle-off-the-night phone call I have ever gotten in my life. ... That was tough. That was real tough.

The friendship that you and J.R. Allen developed, was that kind of the start of friendships across racial lines in Columbus?

There have always been friendships across racial lines with certain individuals for whatever reasons. J.R. didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He hired the first African-American secretary at the Government Center. That sent a message. You had Spurgeon Glenn as his man on the street. He started integrating a lot of the boards and commissions that had not been integrated. He was very progressive along those lines. But people change. And he changed for the right reasons. I don't think during the time of his untimely death, he did not see black and white. He saw what was best for our community. And he worked real hard to make a difference along racial lines.

Talk a little about Washington. You went to Washington, started your own company and became very successful, right?

You know Sen. Brock, who was a senator from Tennessee, had John McNeill and I come up as consultants to the RNC.

Who is John McNeill?

He is from Columbus. He was my campaign manager when I was running for council. He and I ended up forming a consulting firm, Wright-McNeill Consultants. I was running pretty hard, as you can well imagine. That was mid-'70s. It was right after the '76 election. I was running for re-election and I was getting 90 percent of the black vote as a black Republican here in Columbus. That got attention in Washington. That was the springboard. The chairman wanted to know how we did that. So, we went up and told him.

How did you do it?

I had been working the community for a long time, just helping people. I had a strong family background and history of folks who had been in this town a long time, doing the right things. I don't think party labels should mean anything anyway -- I have never voted a straight ticket in my life and probably never will because I am not going to vote for a Republican just because he is a Republican.

You voted for President Obama, right?

Well, yeah, I voted for President Obama.

Both times?

(Pause) (Laughter)

That may be the hardest question I ask.

I voted for him. ... I never thought I would have the opportunity to vote for a black man to be president in my lifetime.

So, if you never thought you would have a chance to vote for a black president, that means you never thought you would see a black president in your lifetime, right?

That is correct.

Why?

If you look at the political landscape, the moon, sun and stars had to set in the same plane. And I think it did for him. On the other hand, I think Colin Powell could have been our first black president if he had chose to run. He is also a Republican and has the respect of a lot of people across the party lines.

Talk about the politics of race. You are in a unique position to understand it.

You know, although we have made a lot of progress in our country, we still have a ways to go. Sometimes we still see things as black and white. And in many cases, they are black and white. I do see white people voting for black candidates and I see black folks voting for white candidates. Sometimes I see white voters voting for black candidates over white candidates. I see black voters voting for white candidates over black candidates. I think it is getting more now where people are looking at issues and addressing the bedrock of politics -- what have you done for me and what are you going to do for me. ... But I do think we are getting closer in that everything is not totally black and white. Congressman Bishop, as an example, gets a lot of votes from whites. ... He works hard for people. And that is the politics of race that works for me.

Who is the best politician you ever saw? That is a good question. Hard to say.

Locally?

J.R. Allen was the best local politician I have ever seen because he was able to connect with people at a time in history we needed that kind of connection.

Nationally?

It depends upon the perspective of what we are looking at. I think LBJ was probably one of the best politicians as it relates to getting a deal done. I think Ronald Reagan was the best politician when it came to connecting with people and getting a message across.

You spent about 15 years on the Aflac board. Was it rewarding?

Very much so. First of all, Aflac is such a well run company. The Amos family is very special, from the three brothers who started to the company to Dan to Paul. Just outstanding individuals and outstanding business people. The experience of serving on that board was very rewarding just from the standpoint of being associated with an outstanding board of individuals. I was fortunate to chair the audit committee. I was fortunate to be the lead director from time to time. ... Dan (Amos) is one of my closest friends.

Why has Dan been successful?

Because Dan has a simple view of things. One, bad news doesn't get better with age -- you have probably heard him say that -- and you don't risk a lot for a little. That is why he has been successful. He just keeps it simple and he keeps it real.

You have dealt with CEOs all over the country. How rare is that simplicity and focus?

Very rare. One of the greatest things Dan believes in is transparency. He just believes in -- here it is; everything is open. Some CEOs like to keep it close to the vest. Even when we go to Aflac conventions, he tells us to get on out and talk to the sales force. Hear what they have to say. Dan has always been very supportive of me. ....

Has Dan been one of the friends you have leaned on in the last couple of years since your wife, June, died?

I was about to go there with that. He was the person who was there for me. ... You need those types of friends in a time of crisis, And he has always been there. He is a great person, great friend and great asset to this community.

How many years were you and June married?

Fifty. ... I first saw her at Spencer High School.

To have a partner who has been there since high school through your incredible success, what has been the toughest part of the last few years?

She passed on Good Friday, three years ago, which is the 22nd of April and the 22nd is tomorrow. We are right in the midst of that. But that's OK. The greatest thing I could say about her is she was always supportive -- when I was running off to Washington, starting up another company.

Do you remember what she said when you told her you were going to run as a Republican?

She didn't care. She didn't particularly like politics -- period. So, whether I was a Democrat or Republican didn't make a difference to her, (Laughter) ... She let me go out and do that. She never really wanted to be a part of that. She did enjoy tremendously participating in Aflac events and conventions. She enjoyed being involved as a life partner in the Horatio Alger Association, where I was inducted in '09. For someone who came off Cusseta Road like she did -- myself who came off the lower part of Second Avenue a half a block from Golden Park -- we did pretty well.

Another successful person who came out of your neighborhood who achieved great success was retired Superior Court Judge John Allen, right?

Coming from downtown out of BTW, John was very well equipped to sit on the bench because he had been able to see a lot that transpires out in the streets. He tempered justice with mercy. Regardless, he had great equilibrium and he was always fair,

When you look across Columbus, you see a lot of black-on-black crime. You are chairman of the Crime Prevention Board. How do you address it?

Crime in many incidences is a byproduct of environment. I think most studies have shown that. Kids grow up and what they see and the things that influence them in those neighborhoods sometimes create the root cause of crime. And in some of the things we tried to do on the commission is reach those kids, go into those environments. Look at the Boxwood project. That is what I mean. We got to try and address those problems early on and present a different point of view to some of these kids so when they do get old enough, hopefully we can decrease that. But that is a problem. As I said, it is a byproduct of environment.

You talk about environment. You were the product of a two-parent home where you were pushed by both parents ...

And grandparents.

Has the lack of that two-parent families been an environmental cause of the crime issue?

Well, it could be in some instances. I know of a lot of kids that have gone on to do great things that came from single-parent households. ... Black kids and white kids. So, I don't think that is totally the reason when you talk about environment. When I talk about environment, I am talking about housing, I am talking about neighborhoods, I am talking about people that don't have access to things they should have access to.

I think as parents we have to spend more time with our children. Go to PTA meetings. See how they are doing in school. See who they are associating with.

When I grew up, a lot of the kids used to go down and caddy at the Lions golf course, down by the stadium. My parents never would let us go down there, because they felt that a lot of those guys ended up getting in trouble. That is not totally true because I had good friends who used to do that. They were trying to shield us from whatever element might not be good. I am not suggesting that the guys that caddied were bad. You following what I am saying? My uncle who unfortunately was in trouble from time to time, they used to say that's where he got his start. But I know some fine folks, Rudolph Allen, who used to caddy down there all the time.

You made a significant donation to Columbus Tech for the health sciences building. Do you get a sense of pride when you go by and see that building?

I do. Not so much that my name is on it -- naming doesn't mean a whole lot to me, though I appreciate it. What is most important is the contribution that is being made to kids that are going to school over there. Everybody doesn't necessarily have to have a four-year college degree to get a good job and to make a good salary. When you can turn out RNs, lab techs, radiology techs and pharmacy techs that can go off and get a good job, that is my sense of pride. To have grown up here and be able to do that is a blessing. Generations will be impacted by that.

How did you get to Columbus, Ohio, in 1955?

Train.

When you got on that train, did you ever think in your life you would be this blessed?

Absolutely not. I was just a young 18-year-old going to college like a lot of other 18-year-olds. You know, God takes us where he wants us to go. He equips us with the tools we need to make things happen if we use those tools correctly.

What tools did you get?

First of all, I got good encouragement from my parents. A support system from friends and others in the community and at Ohio State. But I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be blessed the way I have been blessed. And if you have been blessed, you got to bless others. Only way you can do that is by continuing to give back the best you can.

Name: Dr. Robert Wright

Age: 77

Job: Retired founder of two consulting firms that did business in the public and private sector.

Experience: Elected to Columbus Council, 1970; established a consulting firm, Wright-McNeil & Associates, which worked in race relations, research, minority affairs and policy, 1976; appointed by President Reagan to oversee Minority Small Business at the Small Business Administration, 1981; started Bob Wright & Associates, which later became Dimensions International, 1983; Dimensions International was purchased by Honeywell for more than $230 million, 2007.

Education: Spencer High School, 1955; Ohio State University, optometry, 1960.

Family: Wife, June, died in 2011; two children, Kimberly Wright Lavender of Columbus and Russell Wright of Washington, D.C.; two grandchildren, Sydney and Lauren.

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