Irene Wright

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Irene Virginia Wright, 95 years old, died Thursday, June 24, at Southeast Missouri Hospital.

She was born Sept. 28, 1908, at Benton, Mo., daughter of B. Hugh Smith, at that time Scott County Superintendent of Schools, and Bessie Burris Smith.

She was a graduate of Central High School and Southeast Missouri State University, where she received a B.S. degree in education. She often said had she not played bridge with her math professor, who then overlooked her inability to comprehend algebra, the degree might have taken considerably longer to earn. Following college, Irene took graduate courses at the University of Wisconsin.

Irene was interviewed for her first teaching job, a position with the Greenville, Miss., school system, not in a school board office but at the lobby bar of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. That, she said, was the best interview she ever experienced.

After teaching several years at Greenville, Irene and her best friend sailed the Atlantic and spent four months touring prewar England, Ireland and Germany, choosing to not visit France, because -- as she wrote in her travel diary -- "we were warned about the Frenchmen in Paris!"

Irene returned to Cape Girardeau, where she met and married a handsome young history teacher, Herbert S. Wright, on June 21, 1938. When her husband enlisted to serve his country during World War II, Irene set out on a new adventure -- working several years with the American Red Cross at an Army hospital in San Antonio, Texas. There, while wounded soldiers recovered physically from their war wounds, Irene, as a recreational therapist, helped them recover emotionally. It was, she said, the most fulfilling experience of her life.

With her husband still in the Philippines and her Red Cross service complete, Irene once again returned home and accepted a high school teaching job at Anna, Ill. It was common then for soldiers to hitchhike, so most Monday mornings when Irene set out to spend the week in Anna, she would take with her a soldier headed east. "I always let them drive," she said. "They liked that."

Irene taught nearly three decades at Cape Girardeau Central High School. She particularly enjoyed teaching speech and drama in her own unconventional but very effective way, always managing to fly just under the radar of the principal of the day. Shortly before she retired in the mid-1970s, the Irene Wright Drama Award was established to recognize outstanding students in that field.

Along with teaching, Irene was active in her community, working with PTA and as one of the first volunteers at the Mid-America Teen Challenge Thrift Shop. She was a member of Centenary United Methodist Church and Chapter B.I. of PEO.

Survivors include her daughter and son-in-law, Sally and B. Ray Owen of Cape Girardeau; a grandson, Dr. Stephen Owen of Radford, Va.; and a niece, Lynne Engberg of Sterling, Va. She was preceded in death by her husband on April 10, 1987, and by two sisters, Anne Ione Dunn and Mary Inez Smith.

Two days before her passing, Irene was given a jewelry box filled with glitzy costume jewelry. "Oh, good," she said. "I love to sparkle!" Irene, for 95 years, did just that.

Friends may call at Ford and Sons Funeral Home Mount Auburn Chapel from noon until 2 p.m. on Monday. A graveside service will be held at 2:15 p.m. Monday at Memorial Park with the Rev. Clayton Smith officiating.

The family requests in lieu of flowers memorial contributions be made to Mid-America Teen Challenge, Centenary United Methodist Church or the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri.