Literacy and preservation advocate Betty Wright dead at 90

Literacy and preservation advocate Betty Wright dead at 90

By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)

Betty Wright, a longtime advocate for local literacy, cultural activities and helping underachieving children. died in her Alexandria home June 20 at the age of 90.

Wright was born Betty Rhoads in Asheville, N.C. and arrived in the Washington region in 1942. She married insurance broker Frank Lester Wright, Jr. in 1949, and the couple initially settled in Arlington. They moved to Alexandria in 1953, and quickly joined what was then a nascent effort to protect and preserve Old Town properties from urban renewal efforts in the 1960s.

In 1979, the Wrights moved to the property on South Fairfax Street known as “The Doctor Brown House,” which was once owned by William Brown, surgeon general of the American Revolution. That same year, they began the Frank and Betty Wright Foundation and launched a program called Wright to Read, a tutoring and mentoring program for underachieving and under-privileged children.

From 1979 to 2010, Wright to Read was administered by The Campagna Center before it became a separate, nonprofit organization. Carter Flemming has been involved with The Campagna Center in a variety of capacities since 1972, and said Wright’s interest in preserving both Alexandria’s past and its future was what made her so special.

“I knew her through The Campagna Center and the Wright to Read program, but I think we all understood that she was a force in the historic preservation of Alexandria,” Flemming said. “I always thought it was really such a wonderful thing that she not only had the interest in the historic preservation of the city, but that she cared about the city as it is today and the people who live here today.

“She put her money towards helping some of those people have a better chance at life. I thought it was a very good balance that she struck between preserving the old but looking out and taking care of the new.”

Wright to Read serves around 100 elementary school children who are reading at least one grade level behind. Its aim is that every child can improve their literacy skills and achieve success, and they are served by volunteer tutors who work closely with each student. It is in keeping with Wright’s passion for literacy and a desire to see everyone given the opportunity to succeed.

“Today, friends and family gathered to remember our beloved founder, Betty Wright, who dedicated her time, talent and treasure to her community in many different ways,” an email to the program’s volunteers said. “Wright to Read, which she and her late husband Frank started in 1979, was very precious to her.

“She believed that literacy was essential to giving each child a chance to succeed in school and in life. While we will miss Betty, we are so grateful to our volunteer tutor/mentors who continue her legacy every day by helping Alexandria’s children learn to read and develop a love of learning.”

The program’s current executive director, Leigh Nida, also remembers Wright as someone who emphasized the importance of one-on-one time between student and tutor.

“One of my favorite thoughts about Betty is that she really valued the time that staff and the volunteers spent one-on-one with the children,” Nida said. “I’ve always liked to do some special projects that reach a larger group, and Betty thought it was very important that we spend most of our time really putting significant effort into helping each child.”

In addition to her work with Wright to Read, Wright donated an outdoor reading garden to the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central Library in Alexandria in 2000, after learning in the late 1990s that no funds had been set aside to build one. The garden was dedicated in June of that year.

Wright had a passion for antiques and historical preservation, and was president of the Landmark Society of Alexandria as well as a member of The International Society of Antique Scale Collectors. She purchased an array of documents, letters and orders from the earliest days of the Stabler-Leadbeater Shop after retiring from her role with the Landmark Society, and donated them to the shop’s museum. Wright also was heavily involved in refurbishing the U.S. Department of State’s official reception rooms in the 1980s.

Wright was a tireless worker who remained on the board of Wright to Read until last year, something Nida said was “astounding” but reflected her desire to stay involved in its day-to-day operations. Those who knew her said she will be remembered as someone who had an interest in both the past and the future, and was willing to invest in the preservation of both.

“I just always thought of her as such a gracious person,” Flemming said. “There are people who often involved in one thing and that’s really their passion, and for Betty, it was so interesting to see the mix of the dedication to historic preservation combined with the realization that Alexandria needed their help today, not just to preserve the past but to move forward.

“I always just was such an admirer of her for that kind of duality in her thinking. I spent time with her at meetings and at events, and she was always so gracious and well-spoken and very, very committed to Alexandria and her program.”