The Shadow of his Smile: Bishop Thomas Henry Wright (1904-1997)
Susan Taylor Block
“A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” - Proverbs 17:22.
From 1988 to 1992, I had the pleasure of doing a series of interviews with Bishop Thomas H. Wright and his wife Hannah.
All the interviews took place in the Bishop’s study where we were surrounded by pictures of Episcopal clergymen and views of the waters of Porter’s Neck. Hannah knitted, never missing a stitch when she patted Perry the dog with her foot. The Bishop sat behind his big desk full of mementos from his remarkable career. Interruptions were frequent. The phone rang with the regularity of an active Bishop’s, and old friends came by returning books or dropping off homegrown tomatoes. The Bishop and Dr. Charles Graham planned a party, by phone. Additional pets pawed and clawed at the door. To add to the happy confusion, often the two of them talked at the same time. Nevertheless, they told me the stories of their lives and it was so entertaining that sometimes I had to prod myself to take notes.
The story began on October 16, 1904, when Thomas H. Wright was born in Wilmington. He attended private and public schools in his hometown, then enrolled in Sewanee, “The University of the South.” His brother, Laurens Wright, was an executive with Standard Oil and helped pay the bills.
After a brief stint in business, young Thomas Wright enrolled in Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria, VA, where he served as student body president. During his time there, Mr. Wright and Princeton graduate John Bryant actually lived the fictional experience depicted in the movie, “Wedding Crashers,” yet in a much more controlled fashion. They checked Alexandria newspapers for the best debutante parties, then crashed them. They must have been a charming duo, for there were no complaints, and both made friends at the parties they kept for life.
In 1929, Mr. Wright was ordained to the diaconate in Wilmington’s St. James Church, then divided his time for one year among churches in Maxton, Laurinburg, Red Springs, Whiteville, and Lumberton. For the next fifteen years, his career took him many places. The future bishop was the first full-time chaplain to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; secretary of College Work for the National Council of the Episcopal Church, in New York City; rector of Robert E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington, VA; Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, rector of St. Mark’s Church in San Francisco; and became Bishop of the Diocese of East Carolina in 1945.
Thomas Wright married Hannah Knowlton, of Charlotte on December 1, 1937 – back in the days when he was working in Lexington, VA. She brought spark, irrepressible energy, and a bit of independent thinking to the mix. Cadets at VMI during that era, like John M. Camp, Jr., remembered her decades later for her good looks, personality, and snazzy convertible.
‘Having been a cadet at VMI, and a Baptist,” said Jack Camp in 1991, “I knew immediately the weapon that gave Episcopalians the advantage: Hannah! As she drove around Lexington with the top down on her beautiful convertible, every cadet envied the Rev. Mr. Wright. Her smile and enthusiasm matched her beauty, and still charms us all.”
As a bishop’s wife, she had no rivals: In part, she was the inspiration for the movie, “The Bishop’s Wife.”
The Rt. Rev. Thomas H. Wright held onto the shepherd’s crook until 1973. He was a road warrior, traveling many thousands of miles a year and often sleeping and dining in North Carolina’s most modest homes. Though “well-born,” he kept his ear to the ground, always listening for the call of those in need, and doing what he could to help.
Soon after Bishop Wright’s death April 26, 1997, much was noted about his rapid rise within the church hierarchy, his national and international achievements, and his friendship with luminaries like General George C.. Marshall and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But in his eighty-ninth year these things were not foremost in his mind, nor were they what made his photogenic face light up.
Perhaps that weepy song, “The Way We Were,” is right — “It’s the laughter we will remember,” for what he loved to talk about in those final interviews was the laughter he found in the world. He shared his gift of humor throughout his career and that was a ministry in itself. As Wilmingtonian Wallace C. Murchison put it, “I still remember sermon illustrations he used more than twenty years ago. His keen sense of humor brightened the spirits and warmed the hearts of his hearers.”
One of the Bishop’s favorite quotes came from an inscription he and Hannah spotted on an old bell in an English churchyard: “This bell is only to be rung in time of fire, earthquake, flood, visitation of the Bishop and other calamities.”
He loved to recount the story of a 1965 plane trip from London to Africa. “My seat was at the back of the plane,” related Bishop Wright, “and in the seat next to me was a lady. I greeted her and soon found that she spoke no English. It was late at night and she leaned her head against the window and went fast asleep. The airplane hostess made her way back to our seats and asked me, ‘Would your wife like a pillow?’
“Hoping that would be the only reference, I simply said, ‘Yes.’
“The hostess returned. ‘Would your wife like a cup of coffee?’ I nodded.
“Within minutes the hostess was back. She had a very large blanket in her hands and she proceeded to wrap it carefully around the woman and me. She tucked us into a blanket cocoon before turning to go back to her station. It was all I could take. I tugged at the sleeve of her coat.
“This is not my wife!” I whispered.
She stared at me strangely, glanced at my clerical collar, and then with a knowing look answered, ‘Don’t worry Father, I won’t tell a soul.’”
Bishop Wright told the serious story of performing a wedding in San Francisco, at Grace Cathedral, for Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s brother and ended it with a humorous account of the reception where he was forced to balance graciousness and intestinal equilibrium when served chicken feet in front of a bevy of photographers from Life magazine.
His comedic timing was perfect, too, when he related the tale of a mundane weekday service he performed as a guest speaker at Trinity Church in New York, only to notice that Eli Lilly had just placed a million dollar personal check in the offering plate.
Ties Bishop Wright had formed with VMI officials while living in Lexington, VA, opened doors years later to military service of an unusual nature. He served as Chairman of Overseas Work for the American Episcopal Church, and as co-chairman, with Cardinal Spellman, of clergy visitation for United States Army and Air Force troops around the world. These positions contributed to Bishop Wright’s position as major player in the national Episcopal Church.
Walker Taylor III was one of several laymen who worked closely with Bishop Wright for many years, both in New York and in North Carolina. His devotion to got him into trouble on at least one occasion. “After one of those days when I spent the entire day traveling through the northern diocese with the Bishop, I came home, burst in the door, and said to my wife, ‘Ethel, do you know what today is? Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Bishop’s consecration!’
Ethel replied, “’Do you know what day this is, Walker? Today is my birthday.’”
Bishop Wright’s humor played a part in the persuasiveness he wielded over the Diocese, too. His successor, the late Bishop Hunley Elebash, related a story of his own. “Bishop Wright always had an uncanny knack to turn things around. He was very persuasive in convincing a disgruntled congregation that they actually liked their minister. I studied Bishop Wright carefully and when I became Bishop, I tried to repeat the things he said to congregations who were trying to oust their ministers. I tried to use the same words he used and the same expression and humor he utilized, but when I was through talking, someone in the room would invariably stand up and say, ‘We know this man. We don’t like this man, and we want him out of our church.’”
During my interviews with the Wrights, there only were two social subjects that brought a grim quality to the Bishop’s face. One topic was locals who criticized Hannah’s efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to elevate the lives and experiences of African Americans by welcoming them to areas still governed by segregation. The other was arrogance. He grew to have less and less tolerance for those who believed they truly were better than others – particularly if their claim was based on an accident of birth.
Bishop Wright did not hold that serious expression for long, though. The smile seemed involuntary. Gentle laughter was a lubricant of his life and he spread it around so that the lives of others would run more smoothly. Like many hundreds of North Carolinians, I am so thankful to have known him and to have seen the twinkle in his eye.
Copyright, 2004. Susan Taylor Block. For more information on Bishop Wright, see Temple of our Fathers: St. James Episcopal Church (1729-2004), available for purchase at the Parish House, 25 South Third Street, Wilmington, NC, 28401. (910-763-1628) www.stjamesp.org