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Robert Herring Wright was born to John C. and Bettie Vaden Herring Wright at their family home in Coharie, near present-day Parkersburg, Sampson County, North Carolina on May 21, 1870. One of nine children born to the Wrights, Robert began his life-long involvement in education as a student at his mother’s private school. He later attended public schools in Sampson County, North Carolina, taking community-offered courses and passing the teaching certificate qualification exam in 1888.
Wright moved to Hungry Neck, Bladen County, North Carolina in the fall of 1888 and remained for two years, before enrolling in the Oak Ridge Institute to better prepare for advanced study in a college. He left Oak Ridge in 1892 to teach in Marlborough County, South Carolina. In the fall of 1894, Wright entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a member of the sophomore class. A popular student, he filled his time at Chapel Hill with study and activities. He captained the football and track teams, was an 1896 commencement marshal, and served as president of two campus societies. Wright graduated from UNC with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1897.
After college, Wright spent a year teaching in Stanhope, Nash County, North Carolina before returning to the Oak Ridge Institute to teach math and coach the football team. He remained at Oak Ridge for three years, leaving in 1901 for Baltimore, Maryland, where he enrolled in John Hopkins University. In June 1902, Wright accepted a history instructor position with Baltimore City College. By 1904, he was appointed chair of the departments of civics, economics, and history. Wright then accepted a position as the principal of Eastern High School, one of Baltimore’s two girls’ schools, in 1906. During that time, he also served as the first president of the Maryland History Teachers Association and as a member of the North Carolina Society of Baltimore.
In 1909, at the behest of Thomas Jordan Jarvis, Wright agreed to become the first president of East Carolina Teachers Training School. Offering two-year teaching degrees, East Carolina benefited from Wright’s progressive ideology, which focused on improving education through better teacher training. He continuously sought ways to improve the education system, helping prepare Training Courses for Rural Teachers, a U.S. Bureau of Education issued bulletin in 1913. The success of East Carolina was quickly recognized and in 1914, the campus hosted a grammar school. Wright continued his passion for improving education, serving as the chairman of an educational commission appointed to study and make recommendations for North Carolina’s public schools in 1917.
By 1920, Wright successfully lobbied the state legislature to approve a four-year curriculum, which forced a re-charter and name change to East Carolina Teachers College. That same year, he also managed to present lectures at Peabody College for Teachers. Wright implemented a regular course summer school program, at ECTC, one of the first of its kind in the state. He served as the program’s director for five years. In 1926, ECTC gained full membership into the American Association of Teachers Colleges and a Class A ranking by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in 1927. Wright spent 1928 persuading the General Assembly to adopt an eight-month public school term. By 1929, ECTC was granted the right to offer graduate courses.
Robert Herring Wright married Charlotte Pearl Murphy on December 31, 1901. Together, they had four children, Pearl, Robert, Mary, and William. On April 25, 1934, Wright suffered a fatal heart attack and died in his office at 10:20 a.m. Funeral services were conducted in the campus auditorium that now bears his name.