When Jim Wright stepped down as the U.S. House Speaker almost three decades ago amid an ethics investigation, someone asked where he planned to go.
Texas, he responded.
“People there know when you’re sick, and they care when you die,” longtime friend Paul Driskell recalled Mr. Wright as saying at the time.
Monday afternoon, Driskell smiled as he looked around the First United Methodist Church downtown at those gathered to say a final goodbye to the legendary politician.
“You have validated Jim Wright,” he said. “You knew he was ill, and you care that he died.”
Mr. Wright — who served on Capitol Hill as a House member, majority leader and House Speaker from 1955 to 1989 before he resigned and, along with his wife Betty, returned to Texas — died last week at the age of 92.
Hundreds of people filled the pews in the church, wanting to remember the man described as a Texas giant, a faithful Christian and a longtime friend.
Many local leaders, including Republican U.S. Reps. Kay Granger and Roger Williams, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and former Fort Worth Mayors Kenneth Barr and Mike Moncrief, were there to honor the man once considered the most powerful politician in the world.
During his decades in office, Mr. Wright dedicated millions of dollars to local efforts, from water projects to defense jobs. He was such a champion of this community that President John F. Kennedy once referred to Fort Worth as “the best-represented city” in America.
As friends and family eulogized Mr. Wright inside, the Fort Worth Police Department’s mounted patrol stood guard outside the church, where streets and most parking lots had been closed to the public.
“Fort Worth is a great city today because of Jim Wright,” said former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas. “We all owe him a great debt of gratitude.
“We may never see his like again.”
Mr. Wright’s political path was long and storied, taking him from the Texas Capitol to the U.S. Capitol, with a four year stint as Weatherford’s “Boy Mayor” in between.
Mr. Wright was old school — he could tell a story and negotiate a deal like nobody else.
He became House speaker in January 1987 and found success, including a bipartisan Central American peace plan that ended a decade of turbulence in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
But a House ethics investigation into complaints that he violated House rules through outside business dealings ultimately led to Mr. Wright, who consistently denied wrongdoing, choosing to step down in 1989 and leave the House.
He later said he might have “made a gross misjudgment” when he resigned. But at the time, he had hoped his resignation would help Republicans and Democrats work together better.
After leaving office, he and his wife returned to Fort Worth where he remained active in the community — writing books, giving lectures, teaching political science classes at Texas Christian University and more.
In 1991, Mr. Wright was diagnosed with mouth cancer. Doctors removed the tumor and later declared Mr. Wright fully recovered, although the operation left him with a slur in his speech.
Church officials expected so many people to attend Mr. Wright’s funeral that they set up a system to shuttle people from Farrington Field to the church and live streamed the service on their website.
Doris Nutt was among those who took the shuttle to give her final respects to the former Speaker.
“We think a lot of Jim Wright,” said Nutt, of Azle. “He did a lot for Fort Worth. He looked after us real good.”
Said Frost: “He always remembered the people who sent him to Washington and worked tirelessly to make our country even better each day he was in office.”
‘The killing punch’
Driskell, a former special assistant to Mr. Wright, talked about the passion his former boss had for boxing.
He saw a documentary just last week that made him think of Mr. Wright.
In the documentary, George Foreman was asked who he thought the greatest boxer in the world was and he quickly responded Muhammad Ali, who beat him by knockout in a 1974 match.
As Foreman fell that night, before he hit the mat, he saw that Ali had his arm cocked, ready to throw the “killing punch” to make sure Foreman wouldn’t get up again.
But he never threw the punch.
And that, Driskell said, was much like Mr. Wright.
When Mr. Wright ended his political career, many besmirched him.
And later, when those same people fell upon troubles or hard times, “not once in private and certainly never in public, did Jim Wright throw that punch,” he said. “He could not retaliate.
“He didn’t just talk Christian forgiveness, he lived it.”
Mr. Wright was a key player in the creation of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, but he may be best known for the Wright Amendment, the federal law that limited airline service at Dallas Love Field for nearly 35 years to protect the newer DFW Airport.
A former colleague and longtime friend, former U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander, D-Arkansas, still remembers one time he traveled to Texas to visit with Mr. Wright.
Mr. Wright picked him up at the airport, and as they were heading back to town, Alexander said he couldn’t help but notice all the concrete infrastructure that supports the airport — entrance ramps, exit ramps and more.
“I never saw so much concrete in all my life,” Alexander said. “I said, ‘Jim, how much money did the Public Works Committee spend on this airport?’”
He remembers Mr. Wright looking at him and saying, “Not a penny more than the law allows.”
Alexander said that Mr. Wright, following in the tradition of Sam Houston and Sam Rayburn, was a true Texas giant.
“He was my dear friend and I stood with him in every fight,” he said. “God bless Jim Wright.”
The Rev. Tim Bruster described Mr. Wright as an encourager, someone who, while in office, worked to lift others up — a tradition he carried on through the rest of his life.
“How many of us received notes from Jim Wright?” he asked as many in the congregation nodded and chucked.
He noted that there are so many notes and letters to people from Mr. Wright that they don’t have any monetary value.
But each and every one was intended to lift someone up and encourage them to carry on.
For some, he said, “a note of encouragement arrived at just the right time.”
“He was a servant leader,” Bruster said. “His accomplishments were many.”
“Well done, Jim Wright, good and faithful servant.”
Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610