CRAFTSBURY — Steve E. Wright made a difference to many Vermonters.
“Family life with two sons, hunting dogs and a tolerant wife was filled with sports, music, square dancing, and always hunting, fishing, paddling, roaming the woods and lots of storytelling,” according to his obituary.
It goes on to describe an engaging and charismatic man: “Steve could rally a roomful of people or hold a dinner party rapt. Storytelling served him well as an educator and advocate, and it endeared him to friends, colleagues and students.”
But there has been so much more.
Since Wright’s death, there has been an outpouring of anecdotes and accolades for a man who shaped our state’s approach to conservation of the natural world, and who made impactful friendships everywhere he went.
Common themes among the stories, which come from former students, co-workers, and numerous lifelong friends, tell of a man who was rough around the edges but also a smooth Southern gentleman; someone who was very funny with a wry sense of humor; a man who was quirky and endearing; and a man who was forward thinking, incredibly wise, outspoken and, at times, stubborn.
Steve E. Wright IV, 78, of Craftsbury, died at home on Jan. 16, 2020, from Parkinson’s disease. Born Dec. 12, 1941, to Stephen Egbert Wright III and Mary Will Johnson Wright in Milledgeville, Georgia, he is survived by his sons, Stephen E. Wright V, and Starker Wright; his former wife, Susan Wright; granddaughters Cortland Wright and Brooks Wright and their mother, Lynn Wallace; brothers Frank Billue and Philip Wright and his wife, Diane; nephew, Wesley Wright; and niece, Erin Wright.
Wright earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Georgia Southern College and a master’s degree in aquatic biology/fisheries from the University of Georgia. He served as faculty and president of Sterling College for 25 years, starting in 1968, with several leaves of absence to take on other roles.
He was wilderness manager for the U.S. Forest Service on the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho from 1979-80 and commissioner of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department from 1985 to 1988. He served for seven years on the Vermont State Environmental Board and retired in 2009 after eight years as New England regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation as a climate change educator. He was an avid fisherman and hunter, a storyteller and friend to many.
Wright was at the helm of Sterling College when it transitioned from a boys’ preparatory school to the college we know today. At the forefront of his vision for the school was creating an institution focused on natural resources that would help students develop professions that include caring about the natural world. And he made sure the school had the infrastructure to achieve that mission, such as the McCarthy Barns and Brown Library that are integral to the school’s programs.
“He was fiery; he was passionate,” said Matthew Derr from his office at Sterling College, where he serves as the current president of the school. “And he was really important in taking the college into that direction and thinking about it in a different way.”
At Vermont Fish & Wildlife, Wright is credited with the realization that habitat conservation was central to species conservation, explained current Commissioner Louis Porter. Wright took Porter on his first turkey scouting trip when he started out as a new turkey hunter, along with Pat Berry, who has served as Fish & Wildlife commissioner in the past as well.
“They were two of the best turkey hunters; they both had Fish & Wildlife in common, they had both been environmental advocates,” said Porter of the connection between Berry and Wright. “It was fun to see those common threads of wildlife conservation and friendship.”
Of Wright’s professional work, Porter said, “he was an amazing guy.”
Porter recalled Wright’s involvement, early in his retirement, in the debate over a proposal to install wind turbines on the Lowell Range in the Northeast Kingdom. It was an incredibly divisive time that pitted people who cared about natural landscapes against people who believed the best way to protect the natural world was to prevent climate change with renewable energy, like the turbines being proposed for the mountains. Wright was against it, and he fought hard to oppose the impact on these important upland forests.
“He cared so deeply about the environment,” said Porter. “But many of his friends were on the other side.”
What struck Porter was Wright’s ability to be unfailingly kind and always willing to listen to other viewpoints, even during one of the biggest conservation fights of his life.
“He was unique, that’s for sure,” said his son, Stephen Wright V from his father’s home in Craftsbury, where he’s been for the past 10 days tying up loose ends.
The family will hold a service for Wright in April at Sterling College.
“Everyone there will have known him as a boss, co-worker, instructor,” the younger Wright said of his dad. “He was a lot of those roles in my life, but he was also just my father.”
He said he hopes to share some stories at the upcoming service that tell about that side of his dad, too.
Stories like learning to play baseball. “I latched on to baseball because of my dad,” said the younger Wright. “He taught me how to throw a baseball — that was a bonding moment.”
At 5 feet, 7 inches tall, Wright explains his dad was a small man, but a “maniac” in the outfield.
The elder Wright became an assistant coach to his son’s school baseball team, with which his younger son, Starker, played as well.
“We would come home for dinner and be talking about baseball, analyzing it, and my mother would say, ‘Would you please just eat the meal I cooked for you,’” Wright V remembered. “But she could see this was something that locked us all together.”
Wright also taught his sons to bait a hook and; which fly was right for the fishing conditions. But he also was there to just listen.
“He had a way,” Wright explained. “He would just listen to you, and he was always teaching life lessons.”
His father was the person he called any time about anything — a bad day at work, a good day at work, whatever was happening in his life. And he was that person for many others, too, who turned to him for a listening ear or career advice. A number of his students, dating back to his first teaching job in the 1970s, stayed in touch with him.
“When I got ‘the call,’” Wright said about receiving news that his father had died, “I was driving in Manhattan, and my first thought was, ‘I need to call my dad.’ It took my brain a minute.”
“I like to tell people, he had little feet but left big shoes to fill,” he said.
Friends and colleagues are invited to a celebration of Wright’s life from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. April 11 at Sterling College.
Arrangements are by the Cremation Society of Chittenden County. To send online condolences to his family, visit cremationsocietycc.com or send directly to The Steve Wright Family, P.O. Box 81, Craftsbury Common, VT 05827. Donations in memory of Steve Wright can be made to Craftsbury Public Library, PO Box 74, Craftsbury Common, VT 05827 or to the Craftsbury Historical Society, PO Box 55, South Craftsbury Road, Craftsbury, VT 05826.