All this from the daughter of a Bronx cop who believed in love, loyalty and the absolute responsibility of those to whom much is given, much is expected.
I first heard of Autism Speaks when I explored the historic downtown district of Nantucket four summers ago. Almost every shop window had some sort of display, and many were providing a percentage of their profits that week to the organization.
Soon I learned that it was “Light It Up Blue Week,” a major charity week among the dozens (hundreds?) of charity events held each summer on the island. There was no way to talk about autism on Nantucket without talking about two of its most prominent summer residents—Bob and Suzanne Wright—who, when their grandson was diagnosed with autism, decided to do something about it. Something big.
Today Autism Speaks is the world’s largest fundraising effort to support the diverse needs of the autism community. Light It Up Blue Week ended on Nantucket with its 10th annual walk on August 20 and a goal to raise $400,000. In the last decade Nantucket firefighters have raised $2.5 million for the cause on this tiny island with a permanent population of perhaps 11,000.
How could this even be possible? Much of the answer can be found in the poignant eulogy written by Maureen Orth, award-winning journalist, special correspondent for Vanity Fair and widow of Tim Russert, head of the Washington bureau of NBC News, which was published in the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror:
In Appreciation of Suzanne Wright
“When I first met Suzanne in the mid 1980s she was the quintessential corporate wife full of energy and spirit. At first meeting she would ask NBC employees for their names twice, and then forever commit them to memory—she knew at least 500-plus NBC people by name at any given time. She also knew many of their spouses and children by name, and for those working closely with Bob Wright, like my late husband, Tim Russert, she never forgot their children’s birthdays or Christmases. Suzanne humanized NBC, then owned by GE, and made it seem like a team you were proud to belong to and wanted to give your all to. Growing up, our son Luke received an entire miniature Christmas village from Suzanne, a new structure every year including one that looked like the Brant Point Lighthouse. He thought she was the coolest for having a mini cannon he could shoot off from the porch of their house in Squam where she hosted an annual raucous summer dinner around the time of his birthday. Her gifts were Nantucket themed —a quarter board with “Luketide” carved on it as well as his first scalloping gear. When Luke was learning how to play golf as a little boy, she took him, his friend and me to Sankaty to introduce them to the fabled course. On his first tee, Luke’s friend, Henry, whacked the ball right into Suzanne’s thigh and she hopped around in pain. The bruise lasted for weeks. I was mortified but that did not stop her from taking us all to the pro shop afterward to treat us to Sankaty caps and sweaters. Personal notes in her distinctive, loopy, cursive made everyone feel appreciated and special.
“Suzanne earned her own college degree after her three children were mostly done with theirs. She had worked to put Bob through law school, and family and faith always came first. She urged me to buy our Nantucket house, saying it would always be a place for the family to come together and then they both helped me negotiate the purchase. For Suzanne, Nantucket was the place to congregate for family and community. Then lightning struck. When her first grandchild, Christian, was diagnosed with autism in 2004, it was as if all the bottled up energy, smarts and contacts that Suzanne had gathered over the years in pursuit of supporting Bob, GE and NBC, were unleashed in a fiery passion to find a cure for this tragic disorder. Her whole life was rededicated: Autism Speaks, today the world’s best known non-profit seeking a cure for autism and ways to mitigate the suffering of families dealing with it, was born. The now ubiquitous blue puzzle piece logo became its instant symbol. And Nantucket’s autism population especially benefitted because of the Wrights’ love of the island and the dynamic Autism Speaks program headed here by Kim Horyn.
“When Suzanne and Bob founded Autism Speaks, however, there was so much secrecy, shame and neglect around autism that not everyone immediately understood Suzanne’s relentless pursuit of unraveling its mystery nor why she was so single minded about never taking no for an answer from anything or anyone in pursuit of finding its cure. You were either on her team or you weren’t; you walked in the Autism Walks or you didn’t. Nevertheless, the awareness of autism that she and Bob were able to accomplish on a global level in a decade and to organize a fractious community of autism families, was nothing short of miraculous.
“It was late last summer on the Google campus in California that Suzanne first felt the pain that led to her cancer diagnosis last fall. The Wrights were there because through their efforts, Google was analyzing the whole genomes of 10,000 autistic people and their families, an amazing scientific undertaking. Suzanne thought big.
“Some people, for example, may fantasize about being blessed by Pope Francis passing by in the Popemobile or maybe even being able to touch him, but in 2014, Suzanne and Bob were instrumental in getting the Vatican to mount a full scale conference on autism with 650 experts from 57 countries including personal appearances, a speech and a mass from the Pope himself urging the world to pay attention and to volunteer to help autistic kids. Suzanne’s speech there got a standing ovation. All this from the daughter of a Bronx cop who believed in love, loyalty and the absolute responsibility of those to whom much is given, much is expected. Suzanne Wright has left a giant footprint on this Earth.”
Suzanne Wright died on July 29, while I was on Nantucket; and her death was page 1 news. I was immediately reminded of David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, where he discussed the difference between eulogy virtues and résumé virtues, noting that America today focuses on building résumés, not character. Suzanne Wright took the road less traveled.
Her obituary was published around the world: The New York Times, New York Daily News, Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, People Magazine, as well as CNN and—of course—NBC. In every case the headline was about her commitment to autism research and education. This cop’s daughter, who completed her college education after her children were grown, whose husband headed NBC, could have said, “I can’t make a difference.” She could have been satisfied with her status as the wealthy wife of a New York-based corporate CEO. But she had passion and grit, and look at the legacy she left. My goals are too small.
Photo: 2016 Autism Speaks Walk display at Island Pharmacy, Main Street, Nantucket.
I reviewed David Brooks’ book in a blog titled Résumé Virtues vs. Eulogy Virtues. You can also watch a video of Brooks’ summarizing his book here at Ted Talk.
Bob Wright’s new book, The Wright Stuff: From NBC to Autism Speaks, was released in March. You can read the Goodreads review here.