Robert Lee Wright Jr. has always been the center of attention.
"I was the first grandchild. I got a lot of attention not only from grandparents and my aunts --- my mother had four sisters and a brother," he said. "So I was sort of the apple of everybody's eye."
Born on March 17, 1937 --- to Pauline Talley Wright, a registered nurse, and Robert Lee Wright Sr., a brick mason --- Wright may have been the center of attention, but he was also paying attention. He learned early that his family members were achievers.
"They always had goals," said Wright, who is 70 years old. "The Talleys were all college graduates with the exception of one. I grew up when people worked hard and earned their respect along the way."
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That's how people who know Wright describe him today. And they were not surprised when Wright sold his defense logistics company, Dimensions International, to Honeywell Inc. for $230 million. The deal closed earlier this month.
Wright founded Dimensions in 1985 in Columbus as a three-person operation. When Wright sold the company, it had 1,200 employees in more than 30 locations.
Wright said he modeled his father's determination and work ethic. The fact that his father only completed sixth grade motivated him to make sure that his two sons, Robert Jr. and William, were educated, he said. Today William Wright is a Columbus lawyer.
"He used to talk about that all the time," Wright said. "And during the summer, when I was out of school, he used to insist that I go out on that brick pile and get out in that sun and haul those bricks around. That was to guarantee that I stayed in school."
His father also taught him responsibility --- and how to circumvent racism. In Columbus, black workers were paid only a fraction of what their white counterparts received to lay bricks, Wright said. So his father and other black brick workers used to leave home and work in cities hundreds of miles away.
"He worked in cities such as Davenport, Iowa; Cincinnati, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wis.; Wilmington, Del. They heard there was work up there --- and they'd get better wages in the North anyway," said Wright, who was in grade school at the time. "They'd get in the car and take off. But every Friday evening or Saturday morning, while he was gone --- without fail --- my mother would put my brother and me in the car and she would go down to Western Union and pick up that check. He never failed.
"And from that I learned that we should be responsible males --- responsible people."
Vivian Creighton Bishop's father was in the military, but whenever possible she spent weekends and summers with her aunt, Carrie Starks, who lived on Second Avenue. Wright's family lived next door, directly behind Fourth Street Baptist Church's current location.
"My aunt had so much respect for the entire family," said Bishop, Muscogee County Municipal Court clerk. "She'd say things about Bob's mother like, 'She keeps those boys straight.' . . . She would always tell me, 'He's going to be somebody one day. Those kids are smart.' "
Many years later, Bishop --- the wife of U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Columbus, and the first black president of the Congressional Club, a non-partisan gathering of spouses on Capitol Hill --- visited Wright in his optometrist's office.
Before he was a teenager, Wright's parents were talking to him about becoming a doctor.
As graduation from Spencer High School grew closer, however, it was an aunt, Ann Hudson --- a teacher and counselor at Spencer --- who talked to him about optometry.
"I was going to see an optometrist here --- Dr. Perrott down on Third Avenue," Wright said. "He was a very nice man and I'd had a chance to observe him performing procedures and examining eyes, dispensing glasses. So I decided maybe that's what I wanted to do."
He wanted to attend a school that wasn't segregated, he said, and of all the integrated schools with optometry programs, Ohio State University was nearest to Columbus.
So in the fall of 1955, 18-year-old Wright headed for Ohio State.
"Great school. Great football team. Just a lot of good things," Wright recalled.
But great endings don't always have great beginnings.
"That was the first time I'd been in an integrated environment," he said. "I left segregated Spencer and went to integrated Ohio State --- 40,000 people and few of them looked like me. So, I was in culture shock."
When he took his entrance exams, he flunked them all. "Every one," he said.
"It could have been nerves. When I looked around, I was sitting next to a white kid and I'd never sat next to a white kid before. And sometimes we'd been taught they were a lot smarter than we were --- and part of me just assumed they were right."
But Wright learned he was wrong. Because he'd flunked the entrance exams, he began college in remedial English and math. There, he learned that white people take remedial courses, too.
"Things happen for a reason --- those classes were relatively easy," he said. "And it afforded me an opportunity to make the adjustment. Once I made the adjustment, I was able to thrive from then on."
He got to know a group of young men who were committed to scholarship and trying to excel. They eventually joined the same fraternity --- Alpha Phi Alpha.
"I think we motivated each other," Wright said. "I developed great study habits. We'd all be in study hall and at 10 o'clock somebody would say, 'I think I'll go to bed,' and we'd look at him like he was crazy."
His parents paid every dollar it took for him to graduate from Ohio State's five-year optometry program.
"For the five years I was there, they sent me money every week," he said. "They told me to just study --- don't worry about anything else. They were my scholarship. I got out of school on time. The relationships I had helped me, because we shared a lot of information. Sometimes we shared experiences about certain instructors. It was a total support mechanism."
From Columbus to Columbus
In 1960, after graduation, Wright came home to Columbus and stayed here all summer, expecting to enter the military.
"I was supposed to have gotten my commission," he said, "but they discovered I had asthma when I was a child. They disqualified me from military service, so then I had to go to work."
He went back to Columbus, Ohio, so he could practice optometry. "That was the only state I was licensed to practice in," he said.
That same year, he married his high school sweetheart, June Russell.
After a year, he came home and opened an office at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street.
One reason he came home, he said, was to get involved in his community.
"I always had a desire to be active in the community; I wanted to get involved --- try to make a difference," he said. "I got involved in the civil rights movement in Columbus. At that time, we were going through the rudimentary throes of integration --- movies and lunch counters."
Eunice Thomas moved from LaGrange to Columbus the same year Wright came home from Ohio. She was a teacher and had accepted a job teaching in Muscogee County schools when she met Wright.
He wanted to initiate some changes and she was willing to help.
Integrating Buck's Barbecue --- in a black community off what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard --- was one of his first missions.
"All classes of whites from all over Columbus came by to get barbecue," Thomas said. "And sometimes they'd whoop it up at night, but no blacks were allowed."
Wright thought it was disgraceful to have a whites-only barbecue stand in a black community, and he and others picketed the restaurant.
Wright practiced optometry in Columbus for 20 years.
"I enjoyed the profession," he said, "but once I got involved in politics, other opportunities began to present themselves."
In 1966, Wright --- a Democrat at the time --- challenged Albert Thompson for a seat in the Georgia House. This put him at odds with the local black establishment.
Thomas was one of Wright's staunchest supporters.
"He was really sincere, so we worked hard to get him elected, but he didn't get elected," Thomas said.
After the loss, Mayor J.R. Allen approached him about joining the Republican party and running for a seat on Columbus Council. Wright accepted.
"The Republicans told Wright they would support him if he ran on the Republican ticket for the next available seat," Thomas said.
When Wright switched parties, his supporters followed suit, Thomas said.
"At that time there were only one or two blacks in the Republican party --- and we became a visible force in the party," she said. "We worked for him again, and the Republicans worked harder than we did to get Bob elected. And he got that council seat."
"She helped me get elected and we became friends," Wright said of Thomas, who worked in the Department of Labor, Department of Transportation, and Department of Health and Human Services.
In 1970, Wright was elected to the first Columbus Council seated after the consolidation of city and county governments, and he and A.J. McClung were the first blacks on council. Wright served three consecutive terms.
"We didn't argue with each other about what to do --- maybe just how to get it done," said Jack Basset, who served with Wright on Columbus Council. "Everybody was headed in the same direction. Whatever direction that was."
Wright said the person on council from whom he learned the most was longtime councilor Jesse Binns.
"He had a very common-sense approach to politics," he said. "I sat next to him and he used to whisper a lot things to me. He advised me not to attend secret meetings. He said at those 'meetings before the meetings' you may commit to a position and later when other issues are brought out, you may be standing there looking like a fool in public."
Wright had legendary disagreements with longtime Democrat George Ford. And he still doesn't blink when he talks about being willing to meet avowed racist J.B. Stoner at the county line. But he said Ford's predictions about his attitude have come to pass.
"I was young and impetuous," Wright said. "And George Ford said when I got older I would better understand his position. He was right."
Every time there was an issue in the community --- such as when he wanted to change the name of Brookhaven Boulevard to Martin Luther King --- Wright would call together a core group of supporters to discuss strategy, Thomas said.
"You had some white establishment owners saying they did not want that on their letterhead," Thomas said. "But Bob said we're going to fill up the council chambers, and we were going to show them that we were going to make the change.
"There were so many people there, they asked some of us to leave. Bob was very smart --- he knew how to get the white councilors to join in so it wouldn't be just him. We got Brookhaven changed to Martin Luther King Jr."
The group also worked on Ronald Reagan's first presidential campaign, Thomas said.
"Because there were so few blacks in the Republican Party, there was room to move up," she said. "There were a lot of African-Americans in the Democratic party, and you had to go through the chain. In the Republican party, they were so happy to have you in there. I became the vice president of the Muscogee County Republican party. I was the first African-American to do that and it was at Bob's insistence."
In 1981, President Reagan appointed Wright the associate administrator for minority small business at the Small Business Administration.
"Sometimes it's a matter of being at the right place at the right time," Wright said. "I was on the transition team at SBA when Reagan won the presidency, and I accepted that opportunity. After spending, maybe, six months in transition, I was offered the job to stay on and run the minority business program. I accepted and had great appreciation to the president for making the appointment."
He supervised more than 1,000 employees at the SBA, Wright said.
"I was there for two years. I didn't want to stay longer than two years because I've always been an entrepreneur," he said. "I've always been in business for myself and government was not something I wanted to do for a long time."
Wright said he has maintained a Columbus residence while working in the Washington area, and has always voted in Columbus.
Wright's longtime business partner was the late John McNeill. Together, they formed a consulting business called Wright, McNeill and Associates.
They struck up a friendship in Wright's optometrist's office while he was on Columbus Council.
"John stopped by my office one day out of the clear blue sky and he said, 'I like what you're doing in the community, and I'd like to provide any support I can,' " Wright said. "And that was during my first term in office. Then as I ran for subsequent terms, John was very active in my campaign --- became my campaign manager. So through that we formed a bond and we conceptualized taking the consulting business to Washington to the Republican National Committee."
McNeill died in 2005 at the age of 62.
"You can't think of Bob Wright as a Republican without thinking of John McNeill as a Republican," said Carolyn Hensley, owner of Pronto Press in Columbus and Wright's first employee at Dimensions. "John was an extraordinary person. He had the main contacts nationally to create the Wright-McNeill concept. Bob was the proven success story, showing that Republicans could get elected with the black vote. But John had the key contacts to bring that all together. John was always the behind-the-scenes person, making things happen. Bob was the up-front person.
"And John's race relations background just fit --- helping Republicans appear more sensitive to black concerns --- telling them what black concerns were. Many of them had no concept of what statements they made that offended people."
Hensley said she met Wright during one of his campaigns for City Council. And in 1978 he hired her to work for Wright, McNeill and Associates. The Republican National Committee was Wright-McNeill's major client, she said.
"And that's where Bob got his national exposure," she said. "I went with the Presidential Inaugural Committee in 1981, and Bob went to the SBA."
She said Wright hired her back after he left the federal government and started Bob Wright and Associates, which later became Dimensions International. "I worked for Dimensions for about 6 or 7 years," Hensley said. "We went from zero dollars to $7 million when I left."
Dimensions was founded in 1985 in Columbus, but later moved to Alexandria, Va. The information technology and engineering firm provides logistical support for the U.S. military and other U.S. defense agencies around the world. At the time of the Honeywell purchase, the company anticipated 2007 sales of approximately $173.5 million.
A Dimensions subsidiary, Flight Explorer, developed software that animated videos of the reconstructed flight patterns of the four hijacked airliners broadcast on news programs in the hours following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
After the first crash into the World Trade Center twin towers, all 22 employees of Flight Explorer --- based in Fairfax, Va. --- began sorting through data in an effort to reconstruct the airplane's route. During the time of the attacks 4,000 planes were in U.S. airspace, but employees quickly pinpointed the paths of the hijacked planes, Wright said.
Flight Explorer software, using information from the Federal Aviation Administration radar system, allows continuously updated tracking of flights within the United States and Canada from personal computers.
Wright continues to be sole owner of Flight Explorer, a $5.6-million-a-year company. The software is sold for both personal and professional use.
In March 2003, Wright stepped down from the day-to-day operations of Dimensions, and his son, Russell T. Wright --- who was executive vice president and had been with the company 14 years --- was named the new chairman and CEO.
The younger Wright, now a Honeywell vice president, manages Honeywell's logistics organization and continues to chair Sentel, a Dimensions subsidiary not part of the Honeywell deal. Sentel is an engineering services company currently doing $40 million in business a year that Wright said is in line for expansion.
In 2001, President Bush selected Wright to chair the Plan For Action Presidential Commission of the National Museum of African-American History. The 22-member commission was charged with creating a blueprint for the museum. This included recommending a site, addressing how it should be governed, researching the availability of collections, assessing the impact on other museums, and examining the ability to raise money in the private sector, Wright said.
The commission's work led to the U.S. House of Representatives passing legislation authorizing the construction of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which will be part of the Smithsonian.
Wright said he's been playing more golf since the sale of Dimensions. But his favorite leisure activity, he said, is the time he and his wife spend with their two granddaughters.
"I also enjoy traveling and watching movies in the theater and at home," he said.
But Wright hasn't stopped working. In Columbus, he made the initial investment to purchase the land for the recently announced construction by Ambling Development Partners of a $25.5 million residential development on Cusseta Road property formerly occupied by Mockingbird Trailer Park.
"I have always been interested in improving housing conditions in Columbus," Wright said. "I instituted the Weracoba Creek and South Lawyers Lane Urban Renewal projects. I was involved in Renaissance Villa. We got the bond inducement from the Development Authority and the tax abatement approval from the city council. So we think we're going to be able to develop a first-class complex that will go a long way toward serving the housing needs and upgrading the housing needs in that area."
"He hasn't slowed down much in his old age like I have," former Columbus Councilor Jack Basset said of Wright. "He still gets upset about things and wants to go change them."
AT A GLANCE
Name: Robert Lee Wright Jr.
Birth date: March 17, 1937
Siblings: William J. Wright, a Columbus lawyer
Family: Wife June Russell, son Russell T. Wright and daughter Kimberly Wright Lavender
Businesses: Founded Dimensions in 1985 in Columbus, but later moved to Alexandria, Va.; also owns Flight Explorer, a $5.6-million-a-year software company
Fast Facts: Graduate of Spencer High School and Ohio State University; member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.; and practiced optometry in Columbus for 20 years