By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette
---- — The Massachusetts Senior Games just won’t be the same this weekend when hundreds of golden-agers converge upon Springfield College.
That’s because Dr. William W. Wright Jr. won’t be among them.
Dr. Wright entered a new arena in the clouds May 22 at the tender age of 79. I say “tender” because he was one of those guys who you thought could live forever. He hardly acted his age.
I can see him now, pulling up to the Springfield track with verve in his heart and dynamite in his legs. “Ready, set, go!” Out of the starting blocks he’d dash, burying his opponents in a cloud of dust in the 100-meter run.
A short time later, he’d rip off another victory in the 200 and wrap up his trifecta by blitzing the field in the 400-meter run. With three gold medals wrapped around his neck, he’d shake a few hands, and off he’d go, back to Haverhill. Simple. Clean. And efficient.
True, he competed against runners in his age bracket (75 to 79), but there was none finer than Billy in the state, perhaps all of New England.
Go ahead, call me a liar. I was there for most every one of his races. We had a pact going. I’d watch him trounce the sprint field and he’d cheer me on in the racquetball competition if our events didn’t coincide.
In most cases, we were the only two from Haverhill to appear in the state games. The field drew hundreds from across Massachusetts bent on promoting physical fitness and camaraderie. A gold medal was the added incentive.
I never did see his trophy room, but it must have looked like Emblem & Badge. Pity his devoted wife, Anna Mae. She probably did the dusting.
If I didn’t see him running laps and lifting weights at the YMCA, I’d catch him running the stairs at Haverhill Stadium. He’d start at the bottom and race upward as fast as his legs could take him — all the way to the press box. Then down and up — up and down like a turbine pumping.
A ritual of sprints followed on the track below.
One day, I was there as a team of Haverhill High athletes appeared. They took one look at this jettison in motion and gasped.
“Who is that man?” an incredulous teen queried.
“Billy Wright,” I said. “Dr. Wright to you.”
“We could use a guy like that on our team,” came the reply.
“He’s in his 70s,” I tried explaining. “You should have seen his son play football.”
I was on the sidelines one afternoon covering a Haverhill High football game. Wally Wright was playing end. His parents were in the stands, along with a few thousand other people on this crisp autumn Saturday.
Wally flew down the sidelines toward the end zone and made a brilliant one-handed catch with his back to the ball for a touchdown, much the way Randy Moss did for the Patriots.
If you didn’t catch his obituary, Billy was not only a gifted athlete, but a proficient educator as well. He set a fine example for his kids and others. After graduating from Haverhill High in 1953, he put his own football aspirations aside and worked his way toward degrees in higher education.
At a time when such education was at a premium, especially for members of the black community, Billy Wright blazed new trails for his generation.
While working for Western Electric, he went to Salem State for his master’s degree and secured his doctorate from Boston University. Local folks will remember him for his years spent teaching physical education at Nettle School and the classes he taught at Northern Essex Community College.
Few were better ambassadors with the Haverhill Boys Club and the work that involved him as director of the Neighborhood Youth Corps. Or with the NAACP. Had Billy ever met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally, the respect for one another’s vigilance would have been mutual.
Much as I knew Billy, I had no idea of his extensive background. I did know of his work with AMWAY products, but was unaware of his ties with Tufts University and the Afro-American Cultural Center.
I can only surmise that Billy’s idea of “killing” time was working it to death. Good, better, best, the man never let it rest. In the end, he wrote his own legacy — one which matched the gold templates in his trophy case.
It’s not the number of years that makes a difference, but how that life was lived. In Billy’s case, he did himself proud. For that he will be remembered.
Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.