Bob Wright '47
Bob Wright ’47 first arrived in Potsdam 70 years ago, in September 1942. Below is a story on Bob. Following that are some of Bob’s memories, dating back to 1947.
A Lifetime of Giving
“I’ve been making annual gifts to Clarkson since shortly after I graduated.”
The comment left me stunned. Impressive on its own, it was super-sized now because it came from a graduate of 1947. How does one respond to that level of loyalty? I had several realizations in the split second before I made my reply. But first, a little background. . .
Robert Wright ’47 arrived at Clarkson in the fall of 1942, 70 years ago. After a tour of duty with the Army Air Corps, he returned to Clarkson and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He earned his JD from Cornell University in 1950. In addition to being a patent attorney admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, Bob practiced law in both Utica and Syracuse, NY, and served as president of Williams Steel Wheel and Rim Corporation, vice-president of H. P. Snyder Manufacturing Company, president of Advanced Terminals, Inc., and president of Wright Yacht Company. Bob married Jean Hoffman in 1949. Their daughter, Holly, is a St. Lawrence graduate, and their son Paul graduated from Clarkson in 1972. Jean passed away in 2000.
Throughout an impressive professional career, Bob still found time to support Clarkson. In addition to serving as a trustee from 1967-72, he served as president of the alumni association, as a chapter volunteer, an admissions volunteer and a phonathon organizer and volunteer. His gifts have supported a variety of areas, including the Clarkson Fund, the library, the construction of Cheel Center and Snell Hall, the Class of ’47 Scholarship and the Alumni Gateway. He received the Golden Knight award in 1972 and is a member of the Lifetime Roundtable and Committee of 1000 giving societies as well as the Annie Clarkson Society.
Most recently Bob made a 5-year gift pledge in honor of his 65th reunion and created a bequest for Clarkson through his retirement plan.
Bob and I met in the new student center on a warm, sunny July morning during reunion. I asked to meet because I wanted to write an article about his reunion gift. During this weekend of memories, when the atmosphere encourages your mind to wander, the enormity of his words struck me and I lost control of my thoughts. A simple ‘wow, that’s over 60 years’ suddenly grew to, ‘oh my gosh, that’s longer than I’ve been alive,’ then rushed to, ‘that’s a lifetime of giving.’ I stumbled from, ‘that’s over half of Clarkson’s history’ to, ‘he started giving less than 20 years after Annie Clarkson died!’ I often write about ‘those who supported Clarkson in the past so that you might benefit during your time at Clarkson’. Bob suddenly embodied those legions of supporters. I thought, ‘every graduate, of any age, who reads this article benefited from Bob’s support.’
Besides a humble ‘thank you,’ all I could manage to utter was “why?” Bob was clear and practiced in his response, “Because Clarkson needs our financial support to teach its students. It needed support in 1947, it needs it in 2012 and it will need it in 2047. A gift we must pass from one generation to the next is an education. No matter what any of us paid, it did not cover the cost or the value of our Clarkson education. Others supported Clarkson so that I could get my education; now I’m doing my part. When I started, I gave what I could afford. No matter how big or how small, the important thing is that everyone does their part. That’s what makes it work. That’s what makes a Clarkson education possible.”
(Note: Sal Cania P’04, director of gift planning, spoke with Bob in July 2012)
SIXTY-FIVE PLUS YEARS OF CLARKSON MEMORIES
By Robert O. Wright ’47
Seventy years ago this September, after graduating from Suffern, NY high school and having enrolled at Lehigh University, my father's Alma Mater, I received a NYS scholarship that required attendance at a NY school. Dr. Charles Pohl ’02 (see 1939 Yearbook dedicated to him)* arranged for me to enroll at Clarkson but I would have to find a place to stay and eat. I arrived in Potsdam on the train from Bethlehem, PA, left my foot locker at the station and walked into town to find Ted Ramsdell's office in the old house next to Old Main. I had no sooner introduced myself when I was surprised to be welcomed to Clarkson by Dr. Ross, the College President emerging from the adjacent office. Quite a contrast from Lehigh!
The next contrast was to find a room and an eating place. Thanks to Harry McClain's (’49) mother I immediately got 20 meals per week for $7.00 but she had no rooms left. Their home was two doors from the old gym and just around the corner from Ted Ramsdell's office... Eventually I found a room in the old Noyes home way out on Pierrepont Ave (where State Teachers campus is now) The house had been vacant for a while and a daughter I think it was, had come back to live there and rented me a room for $2.00 a week. The furnace needed work because my India ink, required for Prof Hudson's freshman mechanical drawing class, froze up just before Christmas.
Back in those days it got cold up in the North Country. Al Plambeck a friend from junior high school in Westfield, NJ I discovered was enrolled as a freshman also and had a car. He picked up my footlocker from the station and also offered to give me a ride home for Christmas. The morning we left Potsdam for home it was 35 below zero. Two of us as passengers in the front seat managed to keep a narrow slit free of ice in front of the driver by scraping with a razor and wiping with a damp rag full of salt. We had to stop every hour to thaw out and get some coffee and fresh salt until we got south of Albany.
Enlisting in the Army Air Corps in January ’43 I returned to Clarkson in March of ’46 and still had to find my own place to stay and eat. Thanks to stints at the University of Minnesota and Yale University, courtesy of Uncle Sam, I graduated from Tech in June ’47. (Doc Baer's tough freshman Physics at Clarkson gave me the highest score in the entire Army Air Force physics course test at Minnesota in the spring of ’43).
On my return I roomed and ate with Mrs. Bostick next to the old gym at first and then roomed and ate with Mrs. Riley way out on Pierrepont across from the Clio sorority house. The winter of ’46-47 was still cold and it took two electric blankets to survive the nights on Mrs. Riley's unheated sun porch. The location had other benefits though. Jean Hoffman from Johnstown, NY was a Clio and we were married in 1949.
After graduation my next encounter with Clarkson came (after law school and a job in NYC,) through the New York City Alumni, specifically John Cole ’11 ("self-employed and damn poorly paid" as he would introduce himself at Alumni affairs) and others. My wife, Jean (Crane ’47) and I were adopted by John and his wife Abigail and we stayed in touch until they both passed away. John was a Patent Attorney and along with Gerald Toye ’27 and myself the only "Clarkson patent attorneys" I knew of back then. I believe I was the first post WW2 Clarkson graduate to go on to law school (Cornell ’50)
After moving to Rome, N.Y. in 1953 I started to become involved in the local alumni activities. We started monthly luncheons just outside the air base where lots of Clarkson engineers were employed, and sponsored periodic visits from the college staff. Doc Messinger ’27, Bill Chase ’37, John Carrol ’50, George Brunette ’41, Art Putnam ’41and many others became active. Back then it had been the tradition to have a Midwinter National Alumni meeting in New York City which was attended by the college president, staff, trustees and alumni members. In the late ’50s many of us in Upstate NY areas suggested having those meetings in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Albany and Utica even though in those days the local alumni had to finance these affairs. (Stub Baker ’27 bailed out a Buffalo snowed out meeting to the tune of several thousand one year.)
In January 1957 I found myself arrangements chairman for the Clarkson Alumni National Midwinter meeting in Utica. It was a big undertaking but with lots of help from people like Luther Olsen ’16, String Macartney ’28, Steve Rosier ’41 and many others we pulled it off. For many years I wore a tee shirt Steve got for us for the basketball alumni game for FREE. Somehow the word "Alumni" on the shirt got spelled with a capital "U" instead of "A". I have always suspected the error was deliberate to save us from having to buy the shirts. For the featured speaker I had obtained Dr. Colin Miller, who was the chapel minister and chaplain for nearby Hamilton College. Having a minister as the speaker for Clarkson engineers was the butt of disparaging comments at the cocktail hour by those who did not know him. Suffice it to say he received a standing ovation at the end of an hilarious and inspiring message. Clarkson president Bill Van Note was so pleased with the success of the event and the speech that he sent me a note of commendation saying I made a "perfect score with my choice". Jean and I started attending the midwinter meetings and the reunions in June in Potsdam and since there were no other ’47 grads in attendance we were adopted by the class of ’16 - Luther Olsen, Ben Gero, and Blythe Reynolds et.al. As the years went by we became "members" of the classes of ’26-29 and worked with people like Doc McGill ’21, Dick Waibel ’27, Harry Collins ’26, Stub Baker ’27, and Clarke Joy ’29 to mention a few. Between reunions and midwinter meetings Jean and I got to know some wonderful people who loved Clarkson and worked hard for the school.
In 1961-62 I became President of the National Alumni association and in Rochester at the midwinter meeting gave a speech on the need to pursue academic excellence which seemed to be well received. That year we established the "Golden Knight" award and in June it was my pleasure to present the first Golden Knight awards to four of our good friends, Luther Olsen ’16 (picture displayed at our 60th reunion luncheon), Ben Gero ’16, Stubby Baker ’27, String Macartney ’28, and also Wm. Fox ’02 in absentia. It was ten years later that I was similarly honored.
Later on I spent four years as an Alumni Term Trustee (thanks to Bill Fiesinger ’37) and in 1972 sat on stage in full academic regalia as our son got his degree, twenty five years after his Dad got his. I also had the shattering experience on September 21, 1974, again in full regalia, of sitting behind Bob Plane for his inauguration as President, when Chancellor Jack Graham, as he finished his introduction of Bob, collapsed to the floor and died on the way to the hospital. I was also sitting next to trustee Nat Owen who collapsed in sympathy, having suffered and survived a massive heart attack the year before. My wife Jean was sitting with Janet Owen in the audience and saw Nat slump out of his seat and took his wife Janet out until we were able to get Nat's robe off and him back on his feet. Needless to say that ended the weekend for us all.
A much more pleasant day for Clarkson was the September 19, 1974 1000 Islands tour of the St. Lawrence River on our 42 foot Matthews cruiser "R.O.W.BOAT". We undertook to show Jack Fuller's (’33) boss W.T. "Senior" Price a bit of the North Country and Clarkson hospitality. (He owned half of Coral Gables, Florida and Jack Fuller was President of his bank.) We were all hoping for a major contribution. We cruised down the river from Alex Bay, across to the Canadian side up to Forty Acres across to Clayton and back. Dinner was at Pine Tree Point Inn with all the brass (the Fullers, Price and Mary Saunders (his companion), the Grahams, Hodges, McGills, Cains, and Fiesingers) in attendance. Jean and I went along for the ride. The college did eventually receive a nice contribution although not as much as we had hoped.
When President Whitson was to be inaugurated we lived in Buffalo. I rented a Cessna 172 and Jean and I flew up and landed at Damon Field. Bill Fiesinger kindly picked us up and chauffeured us around for the ceremonies. I remember it was bitter cold that spring day in the tent sheltering the festivities.
Damon field was where I learned to fly while I was finishing up after the war. In the spring of 47 I flew an old Taylor craft down to Cornell for my Law School interview and when I got back it was late and it had rained. I hit a muddy spot on the runway and thought I was going to ground loop but somehow blasted the tail back down and survived. On a subsequent trip on the way home the wind kicked up and I had to stop in Watertown for fuel and rest. I called Mr. Peckham, my instructor and base operator, about the weather but he said to come on home and he would meet me on the runway and steady the wings as I taxied to the hanger. I still have my log book from those days…
Ralph Damon as Chairman of the Trustees, whom I had the pleasure of meeting several times, was I believe a major early driving force behind the post war development of Clarkson College into the dynamic University it is today. The ’46 yearbook was dedicated to him in appreciation of his leadership.
Over the years Jean and I enjoyed Lifetime Trustee Luther Olsen's many stories of the struggles of the Board of Trustees with the growth of the post war era. (Luther retired to Rome, NY) I can remember many of these especially those about Bert Snell, Bobby Clarkson Sr., Ralph Damon, Mundy Peale and others. Luther told how he walked the perimeter to layout the first dorm and new building "on the hill" after the war to start the dream of Clarkson on the hill. (Later when my son resided there it was known as the "PITS").
It was my privilege to know Bobby Sr. and to work on Bobby Jr.'s Business Administration task force. It also has been my good fortune to have met all the Clarkson Presidents starting with Dr. Thomas to the present day and have worked closely with several. I have also known and worked with many of the Alumni Presidents from the ’40's through the ’80’s. The last Alumni function at Potsdam for Jean and myself was our 50th, Crane and Clarkson in 1997 (Jean passed away in 2000). The last few years have been limited to the Clarkson Presidents' Florida visits except 2007 when I made it to Potsdam for our 60th on the way back from a Cornell Alumni sponsored cruise down the Danube River in Europe. The 60th became infamous for me when, coming out of the new Snell Hall I stepped off the curb without seeing it and fell flat on my face. Several people rushed up and asked "can we help you old man?" But fortunately nothing was broken and with classmate Joe Bourcy's help I got up and continued the weekend.
Mundy Peale was Chairman of the Board when I was a trustee and had a ranch out in Wyoming. He, being an aviation pioneer, was involved with the University setting up a History of Transportation Institute. After some discussion of the history of my "new" company, at his direction I packed up all the early records of the Williams Steel Wheel & Rim Co. (circa 1900 to 1960) and sent them to the University of Wyoming. The Williams Company, which I bought in 1963, was founded by Clarence Williams, Charlie Mott's partner in Mott Wheel Works. He "couldn't stand the mud" in Flint, Michigan, when Mott moved the company from Utica, NY to be close to the automobile industry, and came back to Utica, NY. Mott by the way was the largest individual stockholder in General Motors when he died.
Over the last quarter century or so there have been many, many trustees, alumni and staff who have worked tirelessly growing and developing Clarkson into the great institution it is today. They have been and will continue to be thanked and recognized in the coming years. However without the unique dedicated support of the early Clarkson alumni, some of whom it was my privilege to get to know and work with, there might not have been a Clarkson to grow.
Many names, in addition to those mentioned above, of early Clarkson alumni and trustees who were active in the early development years whom I met and worked with come to mind such as Dr. Bayard Clarkson, Paul Garvey ’42, George Peck ’37, Revis Stephenson ’34, Bill Fiesinger ’37, George Maclean ’42, Al Hemstreet ’27(who flew his own airplane to Potsdam from Texas for many years even after the FAA took away his pilot’s license because of his age), John MacQueen ’37, Lynn Merrill ’24, and many more that I'm sure I have forgotten or never had the good fortune to meet. Bill Fiesinger in particular has served Clarkson both as an alumnus and staff member above and beyond!!!
I am now a resident of Palm Coast, Fla. due entirely to my classmate Burr Deming ’47. After losing track of him for some years I was calling classmates on a Clarkson fund drive and was talking to classmate John Danforth ’47 and asked him if he knew where Burr was. He promptly gave me Burr's phone number (I had forgotten he was Burr's brother in law) and on our next visit to son Paul's home in Tampa I called Burr. Burr invited us to stop by which we did and after renting a place for a month Jean decided she could live in Palm Coast (She always said she would never be caught dead living in Florida). Burr now lives in Huntsville, Ala., near his sister and John.
One of the more amusing "Clarkson encounters" happened here in Florida. Jean and I were on Interstate 95 going to Daytona Beach when a Chevy pickup zoomed by us and then slowed up so we had to pass. As we did I saw a piece of paper being held up to the driver's side window but couldn't read it and Jean could not turn her head to read it either. Fearing something might be wrong with the car I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. The truck pulled up beside us on the grass and with the window down the driver apologized for scaring us but said he was from the Chevy store in Palm Coast and had seen our Clarkson license plate frame and was a Clarkson grad also. Since Clarkson graduates are pretty scarce hereabouts, Bob Gibbs ’81 just wanted to say hello!
Many years ago State Regent Emlyn Griffith, a Cornell Law School classmate, impressed upon me the fact that our colleges actually gave us far more in value than the tuition we paid and that they deserved our continuing financial support. In that spirit I have made it a point to keep Clarkson at the top of my charitable giving list and am glad to have been able, with my son Paul ’72, to be a Cheel Patron and to have Jean's and my parents' names on seats in the arena. Jean and I received a plaque stating we are LIFE MEMBERS of the Roundtable, our names are on a brick in the "Pathway of Philanthropy", and Clarkson is beneficiary of my IRA among other things.
In part because of our involvement with Clarkson we have become a "North Country" family with a son, nephew, and brother in law, all grads, and my wife, sister in law and nieces all State Teachers grads. My daughter, son in law, grandson and her father in law are all St. Lawrence grads.
My life has been greatly enriched by Clarkson and I hope to continue to be active in supporting Clarkson and President Tony Collins for many more years to come!!!
* Dr. Charles Pohl lived in Suffern, NY were I graduated from High School and many years later I learned that he had sent many boys to Clarkson even paying tuition for some. At least one of the Bohlander boys of Nyack, NY, whose report cards went directly to Dr. Pohl, was in that group. I received a scholarship from Clarkson matching my NYS Regents scholarship thanks to Dr. Pohl.
Bob Wright '47
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