Making her own footprint: Wright Funeral Home marks 100 years

jbecknell@enquirerherald.comMarch 3, 2014 

— Bridget Wright began working in her family’s funeral home business as soon as she was old enough to chauffer a family around in a limousine.

Some mornings, the 15-year-old Wright would pick up a limousine at Wright Funeral Home before school, then park it at York Comprehensive High School during her classes so she could drive it to an after-school funeral service.

Wright, now 36, and her older brother Kevin, 40, who serves in the U.S. Air Force, both learned the funeral business at a young age from their father, the late Isaac N. “Ike” Wright Jr. But never did Bridget Wright expect to be leading the century-old family business into the next century.

“This is nothing I ever wanted to do. Because growing up, I saw how hard and incredibly unrewarding it was,” she said. “But this business really grew on me. Being here, and working with my dad, I see how much the community still needs help and guidance.”

The business founded in 1914 by Bridget Wright’s great grandfather, Ike “Bub” Wright, is marking its 100-year anniversary this year, now in its fourth generation of family ownership.

The celebration included a Friday drop-in reception and a Saturday family fun day. And that’s not all. Wright said she is planning some other events later this year.

Wright said her father, “Ike” Wright, who died in July 2013 after a battle with cancer, was looking forward to the celebration. “He would have given anything to be here for this,” she said.

Bridget Wright is an attorney who did her undergraduate work at Princeton University, earned a law degree from Wake Forest University and practiced in Atlanta before returning home in 2008 to work at the funeral home. She has continued to operate the business with the same ideals of generosity and compassion held by her father.

“This business was built on never turning anyone away,” said Wright, also a city of York municipal judge. “That was something that was ingrained in me.”

In the early days of the funeral home, Wright said, the family sometimes accepted eggs, chickens or farm animals as payment for funeral expenses.

In the later years, Kevin Wright said, many families didn’t have life insurance to help pay funeral expenses. “My dad still took those people in and did funeral services for them and let those people pay in time,” he said.

Bridget Wright said she still doesn’t turn anyone away, though funeral expenses remain a challenge for many families. Sometimes, she said, it means working with a family to create arrangements that meet their budget.

Kevin Wright, now a master sergeant in aircraft maintenance at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, said his father always set the highest expectations for how other people should be treated.

“It gave me a lot of life lessons, what he taught me,” he said. “He was always there to make sure I didn’t stray too far from the line.”

Duane White, a York native and a former York police officer who now works with the funeral home, said Wright Funeral Home has been a cornerstone of the community. “There are some families we have that this funeral home has served since 1914,” he said.

Mike Wright, brother of the late Ike Wright, who helped his brother in the business for a dozen years, said Ike was gifted in professionalism, compassion and diplomacy.

“Ike was good at it; he was a diplomat,” said Mike Wright, who retired from Duke Power. “He knew what to say so we could deliver the service in a timely manner with less stress on the family.”

But Wright provided much more that funeral services. During segregation, he said, Wright operated an ambulance service and a laundry. Wright remembers going on ambulance calls with his dad as a child.

The funeral home also was a place where people sometimes came for advice, said Johnny Love, who has worked for Wright Funeral Home for more than 40 years.

“It was a meeting place at one time. Everyone had a problem or they needed someone to understand what was going on,” Love said. “Most of the time they would bring their problems to Ike. He was the type of guy who would listen.”

Deep family roots

The Wright family has roots that run deep in York County soil. Bridget Wright’s great, great grandfather, Austin Wylie, drove a stagecoach into York County from Virginia. He visited Historic Brattonsville, where he met her great, great grandmother, Alice Bratton, a former slave who wanted to leave the plantation.

The couple’s daughter, Fannie C. Wylie, married Ike “Bub” Wright, who started the funeral home. He was a master carpenter who began serving a demand for handmade pine caskets. That evolved into a handling funeral services for black families.

The funeral service opened in 1914 in a two-story building on Hunter Street, behind the present funeral home building on East Liberty Street.

When Ike “Bub” Wright died in 1919, Fannie Wright continued operating the business, buying premade caskets. She also ran the family’s 125-acre cotton farm off the U.S. 321 Bypass and California Street.

The couple had 11 children, and all of them were college educated. “I don’t know how she made it work,” Bridget Wright said of Fannie Wright. “But she did.”

Fine Wright, the ninth of the couple’s 11 children, was so named because his mother looked at him at birth and declared he was “the finest baby I’ve ever birthed,” said Wright. “So she called him Fine.”

When Fine attended school, Wright said, his teacher insisted that a child could not be called Fine, and they demanded he be renamed, so he became Isaac Wright III.

But in the community, Wright said, her grandfather was always known as Mr. Fine. Fine Wright took over the family business after returning home from a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, where he served at Iwo Jima.

Like the rest of the family, Fine Wright was well educated, with a master’s degree from Boston College; he had worked as a professor and athletic coach at Stillman College in Alabana before the war.

Isaac N. Wright Jr., the son of Fine and Katharine Wright, and Mike Wright were among five siblings. Mike said they grew up working in the funeral home and going on ambulance calls.

Ike was trained as a math teacher, and taught at Friendship Junior College and in Clover schools for about a decade before he took over the family business in 1975.

Bridget Wright said her father was intensely devoted to the family business. For many years, he was helped in the work by his wife, Joelean “Gerl” Wright; they divorced in 1984 but remained friends.

“This business is incredibly stressful. There are no breaks. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year job,” she said. Ike Wright, she said, “was a slave to this business, which I am determined not to be.”

Wright, the mother of a 5-year-old son, Xavier Isaac, who she said could someday choose to join the family business, is optimistic about the future.

Unlike her father, who she said was slow to embrace technology, she is eager to adapt to changes that make work faster and easier. Still, she is conscious of the tradition set by those who came before her.

“I think I have some very large shoes to fill,” Wright said of her father. “But I feel I could never fill his shoes. So I am concerned more on making my own footprint.”

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