As we age we might not recall much about our childhoods or if we do, it is of fleeting snippets of memory at best. Then again, there are people and events that stick with you through the years and if you are lucky, the memories bring a ready smile to your face. One such memory of mine was Mr. Johnnie Wright.
It seemed like Johnnie Wright was always a part of my life; he was the high school math and Spanish teacher at Depew High School when my sisters started there in the mid 1960’s. Johnnie probably had not been on staff very long before that; it just SEEMS like he was.
He taught all four of my sisters, and they all got good grades in his classes. Naturally he assumed I would follow in their brilliant footsteps, but he assumed wrong. He wouldn’t let me escape, er, transfer out of Algebra I Freshman year because “you’re a Watson; you’ll be fine.” I got the first C of my scholastic life in Algebra I. He couldn’t break me out of my numeric doldrums but God love him, he tried.
I also took his Spanish class. All I really retained from the class was the phrase “La luce elettrica” which I supposed meant “turn on the lights” because he always said it when we finished watching the day’s filmstrip that went with our textbook (okay I just looked it up; it means ‘electric light.’ He’s STILL teaching.) I made a TERRIBLE grade, often falling asleep in the darkened room because it was after lunch and the room was warm and it was immersion learning where he ONLY spoke Spanish the entire hour. I NEVER learned Spanish worth a damn and went to Mexico with my college choir two years later thinking “why oh why didn’t I stay awake in Mr. Wright’s class?!” It wasn’t his fault he happened to teach two of my worst subjects. That’s just the way it was.
But he made class time fun despite the subject because he enjoyed what he was doing. If anything, he taught me that no matter what you did, the value lay in the journey if not the end result. He wanted his students to learn, to take a subject seriously but not to take life so seriously. He sometimes burst into snatches of song as he made his way down the hall between classes. He liked life. It showed.
He masterminded a fantastic end-of-year celebration when I was a junior in high school. He and a couple of the other teachers got together and gave out The Sucker Awards at an assembly on the last day of school (and reprised it the next year.) They bought dozens of large grape and cherry suckers from the local grocery store and wrapped each one in aluminum foil. They made up categories and nominees for all sorts of goofy achievements, like “Best Pothole Dodger in Driver’s Ed” or “Best Worst Excuse for Missing Class” or “Back Hall Sweethearts” and handed out the suckers as trophies to the winners. Johnny Wright was the Master of Ceremonies, and he and his fellows providing nearly an hour of standup utilizing well-known school legends/ gossip/ events of the year. Because we were a high school of maybe 160 students at the most, everyone knew everyone else. We all got the jokes that our surprisingly witty and hip “old” teachers made – geez, they must have been what, 30, 40, maybe even 50 years old, man; ancient! But they were FUNNY! Who knew?!
And there was Johnnie Wright in the thick of it all, teasing his students and receiving their appreciation and affection in return. We may not have enjoyed everything about school; the social cliques sucked and it was never easy being one of the ‘different’ ones, we didn’t like the homework or the endless tests or essays, but most of us liked our teachers. Okay, we griped about a few, but Johnnie Wright was one of those teachers we knew, was on our side.
He taught for decades at Depew, faithfully attending basketball and football and baseball games, working the scoreboard or the ticket booth, or acting as a Class Sponsor for different grades over the years. Even after he retired, Johnnie didn’t ‘retire’ – he also ran a tax preparation business. My mother depended on his tax expertise year after year.
Every two years the town of Depew hosts a School Reunion, and all former students are invited to attend. Saturday mornings we have registration and people can tour the building that most of us Old Guard folks never attended (our building was torn down to make way for it.) That evening the official Class Reunion is held at the town’s Event Center, and all the classes try to be represented.
It wasn’t a class reunion, though, without Johnnie Wright’s presence. That crackling, wisecracking tenor voice entered the room before him, that sharp mind remembering the names of nearly every student he ever taught. Once he was there, the party could really begin. I suppose that could be said for any event in town.
The news of his passing today did not surprise me. Johnnie Wright lived a long, fruitful, productive life. In a small town where he was cherished for his witty, generous, friendly nature, Johnnie Wright achieved a Legendary status. He and his wife and their children were the best of small town America. Thanks for the memories, Johnnie. You were and always will be, one terrific fellow.