R. Dean Wright
Drake University will host a memorial service for R. Dean Wright, the Ellis and Nelle Levitt professor emeritus of sociology, at 1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 29, in Sheslow Auditorium in Old Main, 2507 University Ave. Wright, 69, died Aug. 15 after a year-long battle against cancer. The service will be followed by a reception in Levitt Hall in Old Main.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Dean and Sue Wright Faculty Development fund at Drake University or to the Des Moines Area Religious Council Foundation.
Services are being handled by Hamilton’s Funeral Home on Westown Parkway in West Des Moines. To send a message of condolence, please visit Hamilton’s Web site.
Professor Wright was noted for his devotion to students, his tireless community service and his unwavering commitment to social justice.
One of his former students, Bonnie Kern, recently wrote a piece for the Des Moines Register in which she described how “Dr. Dean” served as her mentor and helped her put her life back together after she served a seven-year prison term for bouncing a check.
Wright encouraged her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in sociology, which she earned at Drake in 2000. He also urged her to continue her studies in graduate school and to share her story with others. She plans to complete her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Drake in May 2009 and has published her first book, a novel titled “Proclivity.” Read her story on the Register’s Web site.
Teaching lessons under the bridges of Polk County
Wright, an internationally renowned scholar, was best known locally for teaching generations of students about poverty, homelessness and crime.
His lessons weren’t limited to the classroom, however. He often invited his students to join him before dawn in helping the Salvation Army serve breakfast to homeless people living under bridges, in abandoned houses and on the streets of Des Moines.
“A lot of people believe that homelessness is a natural condition,” Wright told the Des Moines Register in 1994. “I believe it’s an unnatural condition, one that we have imposed upon people.”
Through their first-hand encounters with homeless people, the students came to understand that homelessness is an intractable problem with causes far more complex than simply bad personal choices, bad people and bad luck.
“Sitting with a person under a bridge or in the woods near the river bank, sharing a cup of coffee and talking about their lives, at least that part that they were willing to share, brought the opportunity for understanding what those who had never been there could not share,” Wright said as part of his Paul Morrison Relays Lecture in 2001. The lecture was titled “Under the Bridges of Polk County: A Laboratory for Teaching and Research.”
Wright represented the highest ideals of Drake in its community outreach
“Dean Wright was the model for what it means to be a faculty member at Drake University,” said Drake President David Maxwell. “He was a superb teacher and mentor for our students, an internationally recognized scholar and a highly respected faculty leader. . . . Dean’s passing leaves a huge hole in the fabric of Drake University, in central Iowa and in our hearts.”
“He will be remembered as a professor who cared deeply for students, a person who applied his discipline in the community, a mentor who provided helpful advice to many young faculty members,” Drake Provost Ron Troyer said. “His most important legacy is the remarkable impact he had on the thousands of students who took his classes. He will be greatly missed.”
Wright joined the Drake faculty in 1971 after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pittsburgh State University and his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri at Columbia. He moved rapidly through the academic ranks to full professor and served as chair of the sociology department and director of the criminal justice program.
His scholarly work encompassed a wide array of subjects, including poverty and homelessness, throw-away kids, juvenile crime, alternatives to incarceration, the sociology of punishment and the Anglo-Indian Community, a topic he first explored as a Fulbright scholar in India.
Dean and Susan Wright were honored for their contributions to the Midwest Sociological Society in 2002.
‘The right stuff’ for partnership at home and work
His wife, Susan, began teaching at Drake after completing her
doctorate in sociology at Iowa State University. She went on to chair
the sociology department and served as dean of the College of Arts and
Sciences before assuming her current post as associate provost.
The couple collaborated on many projects, including studies of the
homeless throughout Iowa. Both were leaders in the Midwest Sociological
Society, which honored them in 2002 with the creation and dedication of
the Wright Garden near Howard Hall on the Drake campus.
Although Wright retired in 2004, he continued to teach classes
through 2005 and also served as an instructor in Drake’s RaySociety,
which promotes lifelong learning.
Retirement gave him the opportunity
to spend more time with his wife; his son and daughter-in-law, Ehren
and Michelle Stover-Wright; and his grandchildren, Aiden and Ella.
Reaching far beyond the ivory tower of academia
A prolific writer throughout his career, Wright produced more than
50 articles published in professional journals and was the author or
co-author of numerous books. His most recent books reflect his intense
interest in using academic research and expertise to help solve
“Applying Sociology: Making the World a Better Place,” was
published in 2001. His final book, released in 2007, is titled
“Politics in the Human Interest: Applying Sociology in the Real World.”
In his quest to make the world a better place, Wright co-chaired an
effort to fund a local homeless youth center and co-chaired community
focus projects for United Way of Central Iowa and Polk County. He also
embraced leadership roles in numerous community, state, regional and
national boards and commissions. His service included:
- Chair of the Board of the Greater Des Moines Salvation Army
- Chair of the Iowa Criminal and Juvenile Justice Advisory Council for 14 years
- Member of Attorney General Tom Miller’s Task Force on Juvenile Justice
- Chair of Attorney General Bonnie Campbell’s Blue Ribbon Task for on Sentencing
- Chair of Gov. Terry Branstad’s Task Force on Homelessness
- Original Board Member of Urban Dreams in Des Moines
- Member of the Des Moines Area Religious Council Foundation Board from 2000-2003 and chair from 2003 to 2007
- Chair of Compassion in Action for the Des Moines Area Religious Council
“Compassion in Action” is an apt description of Wright, who
received dozens of awards for his exemplary and extraordinary volunteer
service. Among these honors were:
- Induction into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame
- The Midwest Sociological Society Distinguished Service Award
- The Iowa Community Action Association’s Partnership Award
- The Amnesty International Humanitarian Award for Public Service
- The Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Award for his study of Iowa’s homeless children and homeless families
- The Madelyn M. Levitt Distinguished Community Service Award at Drake University
Legislators Jack Hatch, left, and Wayne Ford congratulate Dean Wright at the State Capitol.
Iowa legislators paid tribute to Wright last spring
Last spring, the Iowa Legislature honored Wright for his “lifetime
of achievement and dedication to social justice, which have made Iowa a
better place for us all.”
The House of Representatives presented Wright with a Certificate of
Recognition for his “commitment to teaching and activism; as well as
showing a commitment to social activism, justice and community
The Senate also recognized Wright and his family, noting that he
has “conducted his life and work in partnership with his wife, Susan
Wright, and with his son and daughter-in-law, Ehren and Michelle
Stover-Wright, and grandchildren, Aiden and Ella.”