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Kentucky by Heart: George Wright grew up poor but he listened when his mother said ‘no excuses’

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

When George Wright was growing up in poverty in Lexington over 50 years ago, he felt like he was living in shame and didn’t want others to know about it. It got worse when his parents divorced. His grades were bad, even though he had a good mind.

“I always acted real out-going and was a show-off,” said George. “I didn’t let people know of the hurt in my life.”

He received no sympathy from his mother, however. She didn’t want him to feel sorry for himself and quit doing his responsibilities. “My mother taught me there were ‘no excuses’ for not doing well in school,’” said George. She also made it clear he would go to college someday. “And she told me that if I went around with a chip on my shoulder, people weren’t going to help me.”

It took years before Wright fully accepted his mother’s advice. Eventually, her words helped motivate him to succeed in a huge way. He achieved highly in college and became a professor and administrator at that level, and is now the president of a university. Now, well-educated and with years of hard-earned wisdom, Dr. George Wright gives much of the same advice he heard from his mother to students at his university.

But back to George’s early years. He remembered feeling relief when his mother and father moved the family to a much nicer neighborhood, but that changed again when his parents started having trouble and got a divorce. “My father’s drinking began to get worse, causing our family problems,” he said, “so when my parents divorced, we had financial problems and had to move back to Charlotte Court.”

George’s sense of shame and the feeling of being “not as good as others” became worse. His poor grades and bad behavior continued. Then, after attending the integrated Leestown Middle School, George moved on to the mostly white Lexington Lafayette High School in 1966, where his older sister was enrolled. The three years he spent there were interesting, if not highly successful.

“I was usually the only black in my classes there,” he said. “In history class, I’d participate in the discussions and people saw me as ‘the history person.’” But that was the good part. “I didn’t turn in many of my assignments or projects,” he said. “I didn’t see good enough reasons for doing the work, so I didn’t. Somebody has to show me good reason to do things, or I won’t do them.”

George graduated from Lafayette High School in 1968 with a poor 1.89 grade point average. It showed his poor study habits rather than his high ability. But during that senior year, something happened to him that began to change his way of looking at things. He had just gotten off work one night from his part-time job at Lexington’s Idle Hour Country Club.

“When the city bus came to take me to Charlotte Court, I saw some friends on it,” George explained. “I did not get on the bus because I didn’t want them to see where I was going. I ended up walking a long way home in the cold.”

The experience changed young George’s attitude. “I cried and I cussed,” he said. “When I got home, I was done with feeling sorry for myself. I decided then that something had to be done.”

Surviving high school, he enrolled at the University of Kentucky, a place where “people would encourage me in all sorts of ways,” he remembered. His grades improved a lot, and as he started working toward two degrees in the subject of history, two special people noticed him and they made a positive difference for George.

steve-flairtySteve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

One person would be his future wife, Valerie Ellison. They dated for a while, but George “finally got serious…when I noticed her holding hands with a track star.” The two were married while at UK, and she was a great encouragement to the “new” George Wright. Valerie Wright is now an associate editor for Texas Monthly magazine. They have been married over 40 years, a union that brought them two children.

Another person who made a difference while George was in college was T. Harry Williams, a well-known historian. Williams was impressed with George’s work in one of his classes, so he wrote a letter to Duke University, one of the most respected schools in the United States. George was accepted there and received a three-year scholarship and four hundred dollars a month for living expenses. He received his Ph.D in history there, and was the first American black at Duke to do so.

The Wrights then returned to Lexington. This time, George came as an assistant professor at his beloved UK. His style as a teacher was strong and he liked to challenge young people’s thinking.

In 1980, the Wright family moved to the University of Texas at Austin where he was a very popular professor. He predicted to a class there that he “would be a college president some day.” By the year 1993, he was back at Duke University with several important positions in administration. From there, George became the number two person in the administration at the University of Texas at Arlington, serving for eight years. This latest position was the final tune-up for a huge job…one that made his prediction several years before come true.

In 2003, Dr. George Wright, who had struggled with his grades while growing up poor In Lexington’s inner-city many years before, became the seventh president of Prairie View A&M University, near Houston, Texas. He received the opportunity to speak at UK’s graduation ceremonies in 2004, a bit of “icing on the cake” back in his hometown. He also has published three books and is working on another about African-American history.

With the positive way things have turned out in his life, George feels like a blessed man.

“It’s never been far from my mind living in Charlotte Court and walking home that night in the cold,” he said. “I don’t know why I had to live like that and I don’t know why I live like this now.”

George can “live like this now” because of the new focus he put on giving his best effort in his schoolwork when he set foot on the UK campus back in 1968. He wishes he had started earlier, but he understands that is all behind him now, and he learned from those experiences.

His wife watched the change in him as her husband gained success as he matured.

“He really buys into the idea that he is willing to work harder and longer than anyone else. He’s up at 5:30 a.m. Monday through Friday,” said Valerie. “He tells his students that education made all the difference in his life, that it will do the same for them and, by extension, the members of their families.”

George admitted: “I’m not that smart. I work hard…and I make no excuses for anything.”

Just like his mother told him.

Author’s Note: This Black History Month story is reprinted from Steve Flairty’s 2010 book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #2 and previously appeared in KyForward. Dr. Wright stepped down from his presidency at Prairie View A&M University in 2017 and is currently a visiting history professor at the University of Kentucky.

This column originally appeared at KyForward May 29, 2012

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