Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent
During his 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Jim Wright had a well-earned reputation for tirelessly steering federal dollars to his beloved Fort Worth. Today, the fruits of Wright’s congressional labors are spread across his hometown and much of North Texas. A Lyndon Baines Johnson protégé who rose to become speaker of the House, Wright was at the center of the region‘s most ambitious undertakings during the second half of the 20th century, including the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and a parade of government contracts that bolstered and protected the region’s mainstay aerospace industry. The federal building, the currency plant, the interstate highways, the revitalized Fort Worth Stockyards – all are part of Jim Wright’s legacy.
Now, a quarter-century after leaving Congress and returning home with his wife Betty, the 91-year-old former speaker will be honored as Fort Worth‘s Outstanding Citizen for 2013 when the Exchange Club names Wright as the latest recipient of its Golden Deeds Award on May 13 at the Fort Worth Club. The Fort Worth Exchange Club, a business and professional service organization, has bestowed the prestigious yearly award since its founding in 1924. The late Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter was the inaugural recipient. Wright, who has survived two cancer operations, will be recognized not only for his role as a congressional benefactor but also for a litany of other “golden deeds” throughout his life. Among them: influencing hundreds of young people by teaching a class on Congress and the presidents at Texas Christian University from 1991 until 2010. “I did not expect it at all,” Wright said of the award. “I appreciate it deeply.”
Wright said he plans to bring much of his family with him when he receives the award, including his wife Betty, his son, two of his three daughters, and a sister. At least two of his five grandsons will also be there, he said. Wright’s two successors as representatives of the 12th Congressional District – Democrat Pete Geren and Republican Kay Granger – will be the principal speakers. Fort Worth attorney Dee Kelly Sr., a long-time friend of the former speaker, will serve as emcee. Geren, who also served as U.S. Army Secretary and is now president and CEO of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, acknowledged that he had “big shoes to fill” when he took over the 12th district congressional seat after Wright left Washington in 1989. In many ways, Geren said, Wright was effectively congressman for the entire state by “helping to build the infrastructure that made Texas what it’s become since the end of the Second World War. He rose to the position of speaker but remained connected to the lifeblood of Texas and was a partner in building the Fort Worth and North Texas that we know today.” Granger, who served as Fort Worth mayor before succeeding Geren in Congress in 1997, said two of Wright’s “greatest” achievements were his efforts to create the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and his work to secure job-creating Pentagon contracts for local defense giants such as Bell Helicopter and General Dynamics, now Lockheed Martin. “It’s undeniable that he had an enormous impact on Fort Worth,” said Granger. The venerable Fort Worth-made F-16 fighter, which went into production on Wright’s watch, is still being built for overseas sales, Granger noted. Kelly said he and Wright have shared a friendship that began when Wright was a young congressman and Kelly was a clerk for then-speaker Sam Rayburn while attending law school in Washington. “He’s always been well-intended in everything he’s done,” said Kelly. “He’s been involved in a lot of good things for Fort Worth, no doubt about that.”
The awards program citation said that the former speaker’s “golden deeds started at an early age.” Wright was 19 when he volunteered for military service barely three weeks after Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At 20, he was flying combat missions in the Pacific. As a congressman, Wright helped secure needed flood-control projects and downtown revitalization initiatives that included Sundance Square and the Worthington Hotel. After two large meat-packing plants closed on the North Side, resulting in 30 percent unemployment in a large area of the community, Wright stepped in to get the area included in a program for restoration of depressed areas. Wright sponsored construction of the Fort Worth Federal Center, which houses federal agencies serving an 11-state region. The award will also commend Wright’s volunteer service as a former scoutmaster, Sunday school teacher and boxing coach. Geren will point out in his speech at the award ceremony that after leaving Congress Wright could have stayed in the nation’s capital to make “millions of dollars” as a Washington consultant. Instead, Geren notes, the former congressman “chose to move back to Fort Worth and be a teacher at TCU.” “He was an extraordinary teacher and worked hard to share with these kids his 50 years of public life,” Geren said. “That goes right to the heart of the man. I think that says a lot about his character.” Though slowed by health problems and advancing age in recent years, Wright still maintains a relatively vigorous schedule at his TCU office and with occasional speaking appearances. He and Betty live about a mile from campus in the Overton Woods neighborhood and Wright typically rides to work with Norma Ritchson, who has been his administrative assistant since 1980. “He’s a hard worker,” Ritchson says. “He makes his telephone calls, he makes a few speeches, and does interviews, and talks to young people who are doing research and all those sorts of things. He’s not happy if he doesn’t have a plan for the day. He makes his list and has an agenda for every day, things we are going to accomplish.” Wright served in the Texas House and as mayor of Weatherford before being elected to Congress in 1954, upending an established Democratic incumbent by winning 60 percent of the primary vote to represent the 12th District. At that time, the district encompassed five counties but 75 percent of the population was in Fort Worth. While distinguishing himself as a tireless steward for his district, Wright rose through the ranks to become House majority leader for 10 years before ascending to speaker in 1987. His 12th District constituents re-elected him 17 times. Wright was regarded as one of the most skillful orators in the House, an adept legislative negotiator and an expert on foreign policy. One of the proudest moments of his career, he says, was when he had the opportunity to deliver a television address to the Russian people while leading a congressional delegation to the Soviet Union. Wright resigned during his second term as speaker in June 1989 after an ethics inquiry that roiled the House with fierce partisan infighting. He steadfastly denied wrongdoing but said that political bitterness had created an atmosphere of “mindless cannibalism” that made it impossible for him to lead effectively.