Former House Speaker, Fort Worth icon Jim Wright dies at 92

By Joey McReynolds

Former House Speaker Jim Wright was remembered Wednesday as a statesman and powerbroker, but TCU recalled a teacher and mentor.
For nearly 20 years, Wright taught a popular political science class at TCU — Congress and the Presidents. He also lectured about government and history.
Wright stepped down from teaching in 2010, but continued tutoring students.
“I loved having students come talk with me,” Wright said in a 2014 interview. “They would show up, and we would talk at length about their academics, and politics and whatever we stumbled upon. It was a lot of fun.”
Chancellor of TCU, Victor Boschini acknowledged Wright’s death in an e-mail Wednesday morning.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Speaker Wright, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time,” Boschini wrote.
Wright maintained an office in the Mary Couts Burnett Library on TCU’s campus. It was an exact replica of the speaker’s ceremonial office at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
The library also houses the Speaker Jim Wright Collection. It consists of papers, photographs, audiovisual material and memorabilia that document his political career, according to the library website. The Jim Wright Papers, which span from 1911 to 2004, highlight the collection and document social and political issues in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century.
TCU also hosts the Jim Wright Symposium, an annual event which began in 2002 and attracts distinguished speakers from both sides of the political spectrum. The 14th symposium was held in March.
A political life
James Claude Wright Jr. was born in Fort Worth on Dec. 22, 1922, the son of a professional boxer turned tailor.
He graduated from Adamson High School in Dallas, then studied at Weatherford Junior College in his mother’s hometown of Weatherford. He continued his college education at the University of Texas at Austin, but the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 changed his plans.
Wright left college to enlist in the U.S. Army and flew combat missions in the South Pacific, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit.
He served in the Texas House for one term, and at age 26 was mayor of Weatherford, his boyhood hometown, from 1950 to 1954, before his first congressional victory.
Wright represented what is now Texas’ 12th Congressional District for 34 years; he was elected in 1954. He was elected Democratic majority leader in 1979 and held the title for nearly a decade. He became speaker in 1987.
Wright resigned the speakership in 1989 after the House Ethics Committee charged him with violating House rules on reporting of gifts, accepting gifts from people with an interest in legislation, and limits on outside income.
As a congressman and later as speaker, Wright directed millions in federal dollars to North Texas. He worked to bring major defense contracts to North Texas and also shepherded substantial infrastructure projects including flood control and the development of water reservoirs.
“There’s nothing in Fort Worth that doesn’t have Jim Wright’s fingerprints on it,” said Jim Riddlesperger, one of Wright’s colleague’s and a political science professor.
He was instrumental in the creation of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and the architect of legislation to help foster growth in the airport’s early years. The Wright Amendment restricted direct commercial air travel from Love Field, near downtown Dallas, to nearby states. In June 2006, President George W. Bush signed legislation to repeal the Wright Amendment and it was fully repealed in October 2014.
“We wouldn’t have DFW airport without him,” Riddlesperger said.
Wright also worked to bring a slice of the U.S. Mint to Fort Worth and helped bring a National Archives facility to Fort Worth.
Often praised for his eloquence, Wright was a disciple of House Speaker Sam Rayburn, a fellow Texan.
He also was a confidant of another Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, who served in the Senate during Wright’s initial years in Congress before becoming vice president in 1961. Wright lost a special election to fill Johnson’s Senate seat that year.
Wright was in the presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
“To describe the depth of sadness that engulfed us that day defies vocabulary,” he once said, recalling how the friendly mood of the Dallas crowds turned to “sheer terror and horror.”
His friend Johnson became president that day.
Wright was also involved in shaping American foreign policy.
He played a pivotal role in bringing about a negotiated settlement in Central America that later led to the 1990 elections in Nicaragua in which the leftist Sandinista government lost. He was also the first American politician to give a nationally televised speech in the Soviet Union.
“His legacy is not just a local legacy, it’s a national, and even an international legacy,” Riddlesperger said.
Additionally, Wright was known for crossing the partisan divide.
“He had grown up in an environment where the two parties worked with one another,” Riddlesperger said. “Jim was of a different generation and a different set of experiences.”
Wright, who had the “gift of personal interaction,” remained known for his folksy charm.
“Jim began each conversation with three simple words: ‘how are you?’” said Riddlesperger. “That wasn’t just pro forma with Speaker Wright. He wanted to know.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.