Obituary: Gord Wright - Passionate educator made a mark

Author: Kurtis Elsner

Date: Nov 21, 2007

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In 2006, then Lt. Governor James K. Bartleman, left, presented Gord Wright with the Senior Achievement Award in Toronto. He was recognized for his work with the Banting Memorial High School diabetes walk, among other things.

Gordon Alexander Wright was a man who fought for what he believed, followed through on his dreams, and helped others follow through on theirs.

He lived long enough to realize one of the latest dreams — the preservation of the Banting homestead. A municipal bylaw was passed Nov. 12 protecting the property. Mr. Wright died Thursday afternoon, just after his son Alec read him the news story from that decision. He was 96.

As a long-time educator, athlete, government administrator, naval officer, camper, author and leader of youth, it is impossible to pinpoint how many lives Mr. Wright influenced. As a champion of athletics, both on and off the field, Mr. Wright helped to bring physical and outdoor education to high schools in Alliston and indeed across the province.

As the Banting Memorial High School principal from 1969 to 1974, Mr. Wright worked to bring the best quality of programs and services to rural students, and invigorate the staff and students with a sense of excitement.

“He certainly was a real dreamer, and most of his dreams came true,” said former New Tecumseth mayor Larry Keogh. “He gave me the inspiration to work hard, and when you had a plan that you thought was feasible, to push forward and implement it.”

Keogh was a teacher when Mr. Wright was principal, and later became a principal of the school himself.

As an administrator who encouraged ambition in his staff, Mr. Wright wasn’t afraid to provide the moral and financial support for new initiatives teachers brought forward. Dale Grummett, a long-time math and computer science teacher at Banting, and coach of the badminton team, said Mr. Wright gave endless support to all programs, including the new computer science classes and athletics.

Grummett had approached Mr. Wright with the idea of purchasing the school’s first computer. Originally, the only computer for the area was to be stationed in Barrie, and students would have to send their programs away to be tested. The long turnaround time would discourage students from making any real gains in the new computer field, Grummett contended. Mr. Wright agreed, and Banting Memorial received its first computer.

For Grummett, this enthusiasm from the administration was something that echoed down through the staff and students.

“It wouldn’t matter what department it was, if they had some new program, some new innovative idea, he was quite open to those,” said Grummett. “From an attitude point of view, it gave you a real high. That’s really positive, that’s really supportive. As a teacher you are actually quite excited that you are going to get something new into the school system.”

At one point during Mr. Wright’s time at Banting, the Latin program was in jeopardy, as many schools across the province cancelled the course because it was increasingly viewed as a “dead language.” To generate excitement and keep Latin alive for Banting students, Mr. Wright knew something special was in order. He arrived at school one day in a full Roman toga, and proceeded to demonstrate Roman-style wrestling for the students. The stunt worked, and Banting Memorial still has one of the strongest Latin programs in the province.

Mr. Wright also saw the need for a new and expanded athletics field for Banting Memorial, and in 1971 pushed for the purchase and construction of fields on the land south of Albert Street.

In 1984, 10 years after Mr. Wright’s retirement, the field was named the G.A. Wright Athletic Field in his honour.

While Mr. Wright gave much to the students at Banting Memorial, and the community itself, he didn’t come to Alliston until halfway through his life.

Mr. Wright was the first child of Robert James and Annie Wright, born Jan. 18, 1911, in Perth County, Ontario. As a child, Mr. Wright was active on the farm, and the daily chores helped to instill a good work ethic. The lessons of hard work getting the most out of things became an underlying philosophy for his life. The farm, apple orchards and fish-filled streams became the playground for a young Mr. Wright, and cemented a life-long love of physical activity and the outdoors.

In 1929, Mr. Wright went to study at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph, where his studies focused on agriculture sciences. Along with his schoolwork, Mr. Wright’s college experience was rounded out with some excitement and athletics. His irrepressible sense of humour found itself expressed through a few college pranks, some of which made the local newspapers. His involvement with varsity athletics quickly grew into a love that would have a profound impact on his life and others.

During his college years, Mr. Wright was an avid track and field athlete, and set a high jump record that would last 17 years. He was involved with the varsity football team, and was also on the school athletic society. While at college, he also met another important person in his life - his wife. Ruth Baker was the daughter of one of his professors, and the couple married in 1939.

Mr. Wright started a master’s degree in 1933, but later switched to pursue a teacher’s degree in Toronto. He won the University of Toronto “Bronze T” for being a member of three championship teams in different sports - football, gymnastics and wrestling.

His first teaching job was in the northern community of Schumacher, Ontario, at a brand new high school, with modern facilities, where he taught physics, chemistry, and phys-ed. He instituted community evening classes in high schools, where immigrant families could learn English in exchange for teaching European crafts and trades.

While teaching, Mr. Wright continued his pursuit of athletics, and qualified for the Canadian wrestling team for the 1936 Olympics. He was barred from the team though, after the Canadian Olympic Committee deemed him ineligible because it said his job as a high school phys-ed teacher made him a professional athlete. Undeterred, Mr. Wright and a friend made the trip to Europe themselves that year, and attended the Olympics in Berlin as a spectator.

After serving the Royal Canadian Navy overseas during the Second World War, Mr. Wright returned to Canada to a position at the Department of Veterans Affairs, helping to de-mobilize troops.

In 1947, Mr. Wright was appointed to as Director of Physical and Health Education for the Ontario government. During his time in the provincial position, Mr. Wright took what life had already taught him, and used it to teach others. He was integral in the formation of youth leadership camps at Bark Lake and Lake Couchiching, which provided high school students the opportunity to learn social and leadership skills in an outdoor setting.

Mr. Wright resigned from the post in 1962, to accept a new position of Director of Fitness and Amateur Sport in Ottawa under Diefenbaker’s Conservative government. He resigned shortly afterwards, with the defeat of the Conservative government by the Pearson Liberals.

After Mr. Wright’s return from Ottawa, encouraged by the Ministry of Education, Mr. Wright applied for a vice-principal’s job at Banting Memorial. He moved to the area and held that job until 1969, when he became principal.

While Mr. Wright retired in 1974, it by no means signaled him slowing down. As a founder of the Sir Frederick Banting Educational Committee, he took an avid interest in Banting and his work, and turned it into a crusade to educate people about diabetes and Banting’s legacy. In 1991, in his 80th year, Mr. Wright traveled to Musgrave Harbour, Nfld, the site of the plane crash that killed Banting, to continue his research. On his 80th birthday, Mr. Wright went downhill skiing. He wanted to do the same on his 90th, but his family thought it might not be safe.

One particular family story that demonstrates the liveliness Mr. Wright exuded in his senior years comes from his son, Alec Wright. When Mr. Wright was in his mid-80s, one of Alec’s sons had just returned from a rugby tour in England. The grandson and grandfather were standing beside each other on the driveway, when the younger began nudging the elder and egging him on.

“In an absolute blur, that you could not make out any movement at all, he spun my son, and in one smooth motion had him down on the pavement and had him pinned so he couldn’t move a muscle,” said Alec.

All his son could say was “wow.”

For Alec, his father’s life is something he has come to appreciate more as he himself has aged. He said both his parents were extremely loving and caring, but because of his dad’s jobs, he was often traveling and away from home. He now has come to appreciate what that sacrifice has meant for others.

“That’s why I think I am so proud of him now, because what I’ve lost, as an individual son, I’ve gained by seeing how he was a stand in dad for so many others,” he said“I’ve been there when people came up and have shaken his hand and said ‘Mr. Wright, you meant so much to me.’ “

“So I have learned to understand, that yeah, I had to share him, but what I lost comes back many fold because of the lives that he and mom touched.”

Mr. Wright received several honours and awards during his lifetime, including most recently being Ontario’s 2006 Senior Citizen of the Year, and being inducted into the South Simcoe County Museum’s Wall of Fame in 2006.

The Wrights are holding a small family service, but are planning a large, public memorial service Jan. 19, at the Alliston Legion, one day after what would be his 97th birthday. Alec said his father always enjoyed a party, and expects the January date to be a good one.

Mr. Wright is survived by his wife Ruth, his sons Alec and John, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He is predeceased by his daughter Carol Anne.

The family is asking that donations be made to the Banting Legacy Foundation in lieu of flowers. Cheques can be mailed to: Sir Frederick Banting Legacy Foundation, 2 John Ave., Alliston, Ontario, L9R 1J8

Charitable number 80740 6145 RR0001