President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Thomas H. Wright '62
January 28, 2004
After 32 years of service to Princeton, first as General Counsel, then as General Counsel and Secretary of the University, and finally as Vice President and Secretary, Tom Wright '62 retired from the University this December.
These titles, however, fail to capture the enormous impact that Tom has had on Princeton's recent history. In British parliamentary parlance, he served as "minister without portfolio," putting to good use his rare combination of deep understanding of Princeton's values, uncanny diplomatic skills, and North Carolina-bred common sense. Whether he was leading a campuswide discussion of residential life, struggling with Rafael Viñoly over the louvers on the Icahn Laboratory, orchestrating the preservation of a colony of birds near the Lawrence Apartments with ecology and evolutionary biology graduate students, or helping a faculty member overcome a difficult family problem, Tom was a humane, effective adjudicator and problem solver in Nassau Hall.
Beginning with Bill Bowen *58, who recruited Tom from the Ford Foundation to be Princeton's first in-house legal counsel, Tom has been the consigliore to three presidents, the person they naturally turned to when trouble was brewing or thorny problems needed carefully crafted solutions. To every question or matter of judgment, he brought a perspective of tough love—which recognizes blemishes as well as beauty. He has seen all that is good about Princeton, but he has not been blind to what can be improved, and no one has worked harder to push Princeton to become even better. In his characteristically self-effacing way, his devotion to Princeton, his superb judgment, and his commitment to the highest standards of excellence have shaped every major decision and action this University has taken for over three decades.
The Trustees, with whom Tom worked so closely, honored Tom at a dinner in November. Former Presidents Bill Bowen and Harold Shapiro *64 joined James Henderson '56, chair of the Trustee Executive Committee from 1986 to 1992, and Robert Rawson '66, current chair of the Executive Committee, in summarizing Tom's career. Encapsulating 30 years of Princeton history in an evening, each spoke movingly about Tom's contributions to the University, and particularly his role in the evolution of campus life. At each stage of his career, Tom has strived for a campus that is inclusive—to every student, including women when they began to arrive in the early 1970s and under-represented minorities.
Harold Shapiro mentioned Tom's critical contributions to the creation of the Frist Campus Center, which has given the campus a new center of gravity, embracing everyone in the University community. Bill Bowen referred to the lead role he played in the birth of the residential college system, especially through his work with Lee Butler '22 and Gordon Wu '58, to establish Butler College and Wu Hall. In the last five years he has been one of the key architects of the new four-year college system, along with Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, and has guided the design phase of Whitman College. As Princeton's residential system evolves, Tom Wright's vision of an integrated intellectual community of students and scholars will continue to inspire us.
Jim Henderson and Bob Rawson both spoke of Tom's critical role as secretary to the last two presidential search committees. He had special responsibility for connecting the committee to the campus, as well as to alumni and external leaders of higher education. His wise, quiet counsel helped the members of those committees take stock of what both Princeton and higher education needed in their presidents.
Tom's significant achievements exemplify his ability to build bridges. At a campus tribute in December, Mark Johnston *84, professor and chair of philosophy and a member of the last presidential search committee, reflected on the part Tom played as intermediary between the board and the faculty in discussions regarding the delicate question of who "owns" the intellectual property created by the faculty. The successful outcome of those discussions, in Mark's view, were due in large measure to Tom's ability to break down communication barriers between disparate groups.
Tom grew up the son of an Episcopal bishop in Wilmington, North Carolina, and came to Princeton in 1958 on a scholarship. In recognition of Tom's many contributions to Princeton, the Trustees created a scholarship fund so that the University can continue to admit and attract students like Tom Wright, with an exceptional capacity for excellence and for leadership. We will also name the beautiful gothic cloister in Whitman College for him to mark his efforts to make the four-year college program and this new residential college a reality. The cloister is appropriately oriented toward the southeast, in the general direction of Tom's home in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where he intends to spend much of his retirement.
Bill Bowen referred to this new chapter in Tom's rich life at the conclusion of his tribute: "One of Tom's greatest qualities is his zest for life; his capacity to make all of us feel younger than we are, to think new thoughts, and to learn new things. This perennially young man is now journeying to Vieques, where he will, I'm sure, continue to learn and, at the same time, share his experiences and capacities with the residents of that island." He may travel afar, but the results of his good work remain present in Princeton's strengths, and his intelligence, friendship, and warmth remain very much alive on campus with countless friends and admirers.