Obituary : Mary L. Wright
On August 19, Mary Louise Wright, 97, of Pittsburgh, Penn., and Menemsha, died peacefully in her sleep at home with her granddaughter, Jenifer, by her side.
Born in Helena, Mont., she studied organ and music composition at the University of Washington in Seattle, with Harold Heeremans (long-time organist at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs). She even passed the rigorous entry exams to join the Mu Phi Epsilon sorority for musicians. After graduation, Mr. Heeremans was so impressed with her that he traveled to Helena to urge her parents to let her study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While her mother said, "absolutely not," her father gave permission.
Armed with a Phi Beta Kappa key, Mary Lou took the train to New York. At Union, her teachers included Clarence Dickinson and Hugh Porter. A photograph reveals she was the only woman (and looking quite confident, too) in the composition class that included Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. While at Union, she organized the largest choral festival ever held there with 1,500 men, women and children participating. Upon graduation she studied with Roy Harris and Paul Calloway, and performed on recital tours. At Union she met Jay T. Wright, and they married in 1933 embarking on the adventure of their 49-year marriage.
The couple moved to Athens, Ala., in 1940 to work at Trinity High School, a school for African-American students sponsored by the American Missionary Association. Jay was the principal and Mary Lou taught music and piano. Many Trinity graduates would go on to illustrious careers, such as Dr. C. Eric Lincoln of Duke University and Judge R. Eugene Pincham of Chicago.
The Wrights and their first daughter, Josie, then moved to Seattle where Jay was the director of International House, organizing students to repair vandalized homes and businesses of Japanese-Americans who had been sent to internment camps. The Wrights later settled in New York where three more girls were born, twins Diane and Carol, and then Jane. Mary Lou served as organist at Greystone Presbyterian Church and St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Staten Island. The girls recall dressing up and attending her recitals, before which their father would sternly remind them to behave properly: "Your mother gave up a great career to have you girls!" The girls behaved.
When the family moved to Pittsburgh she worked at Beverly Heights United Presbyterian Church and the First Baptist Church of Oakland, where she stayed for 30 years. It was at First Baptist that Mary Lou's creativity flourished. She started a volunteer choir to sing with the paid quartet, and every Thursday she brought in a home cooked meal for the choir to eat before rehearsal. She built the risers in the choir loft and shelves to store music.
As if that were not enough, always eager to further her musical knowledge, she attended seminars with Virgil Thomson and John Rutter. Collaborating with many musicians and Jeanne Beaman, professor of modern dance at the University of Pittsburgh, she presented oratorios such as "King David," "The Peaceable Kingdom," "Dona Nobis Pacem," "Rejoice in the Lamb," and "Sermon on the Mount" by Alice Parker. The first production created some protest as several parishioners stood up to walk out when the piece began. By the time they reached the back of the church, however, paces slowed as they finally sat in the back pew. Later, they congratulated her for a surprisingly meaningful experience. She retired at age 85. "They really need to replace me. I could go at any minute, you know," she once remarked.
The Wright family's love of the Vineyard began in the early 1950s when friends, Dr. Waldron and Adelaide Sennott of Baltimore and Gay Head, invited them to summer on the Island. They bought land on Menemsha Pond in 1955 and built a small cabin, known affectionately as the Red Camp. From then on Mary Lou spent every summer there. Armed with radial saw and jigsaw, she made beds, rocking chairs, built-in cabinets and drawers, and kitchen storage units all out of plywood. Cottle's Lumber soon became her favorite store. She continued woodworking into her 90's, causing one son-in-law to nickname her, "Queen of the Plywood." Dollhouses and Noah's Arks were especially prized gifts for family and friends.
Many summers also found her playing the organ at Grace Episcopal Church and the Union Chapel of Oak Bluffs. While on the Vineyard she loved making beach plum jelly, picking wild blueberries, walking to Menemsha Beach for a late afternoon swim, watching the glorious sunsets over Menemsha Pond, and spending time with family and friends especially the Sennotts, Dr. Russell and Mary Ann Hoxsie, and the Rev. Tom and Tenney Lehman. The Hoxsies were among the Wrights' first Island friends and have remained close friends and neighbors all these years.
In 1999 when it became clear that the cabin might not survive another storm, she persuaded Harold Chapdelaine to build a new addition to the Red Camp, one that would preserve the spirit of the old camp, but add some much needed amenities. She was deeply touched by the wonderful work on the addition, and it allowed her to continue to summer on the Island in comfort.
Mary Louise was a dean of the American Guild of Organists, a lifetime member of the Tuesday Musical Club of Pittsburgh, and a board member of the Peace Institute of Pittsburgh. Human rights and peace were causes she believed in deeply and worked for all her life.
Her husband, Jay, died in 1983. She leaves four daughters, Josie Sheldon, Carol Strom, Diane Arimoto and Jane Anderson; nine grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. A memorial service is planned at the First Baptist Church of Oakland in Pittsburgh on Nov.