It was like having Michael Jordan ask me for advice on how to play basketball.
That’s how I felt when Bob Wright would call and read his column to me before he turned it in.
The legendary Commercial-News reporter, editor and columnist died 25 years ago this summer at age 72. It was my great privilege to know him during the last five years of his life. I wrote the news story the day he died, and I was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.
Like thousands of other Commercial-News readers, I grew up reading Bob Wright’s stuff. I loved his forceful editorials and his columns — some funny, some sad, all beautifully crafted.
Bob was the heart and soul of Danville. He was born in Danville, educated in Danville, and he spent his entire life in Danville … excepting World War II service, of course. He joined the Commercial-News staff in 1939, retired in 1978, and continued to write weekly columns until his death in July 1988.
Bob was courtly, patriotic, virtuous, high-spirited, gracious, kind — and the very model of an informed, engaged citizen. He helped save the Dr. William Fithian home from demolition in the 1960s and 20 years later he and his wife, Pauline, helped save the historic Lamon House. Bob was a founder of the Danville Jaycees, the Vermilion County Museum Society and the Humane Society. He was active in Red Mask Players for almost 50 years. He was chairman of the Salvation Army Board and he served on the Danville Public Library Board. He fought to rescue the Fischer Theater. When Dick Van Dyke was featured on TV’s “This Is Your Life,” Bob was flown to California to be part of the show. He and Dick were old friends.
I didn’t know Bob when I was a boy, but he was a big influence. His columns helped get me interested in Danville history. When Laurie and I moved to town in 1983 to work at the C-N, Bob welcomed us warmly. We hit it off immediately.
My Saturday columns often focused on local history, which delighted Bob. He didn’t need any advice from me, but sometimes he would call and read a column to me, to see what I thought of it. Amazing.
More than once, Bob and I were recruited to talk about local history for the “Leadership Danville” program. We’d spend the whole day in a van, visiting historic sites and telling young civic leaders the stories behind them.
In 1987, the First National Bank sponsored publication of “Danville: A Pictorial History.” Bob, of course, was commissioned to write the text. At his request, I wrote the foreword.
Years ago, Bob was offered a reporting job with Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, one that most small-town reporters only dream about.
But he stayed put. He loved Danville. He didn’t want to live anywhere else.
Bob Wright was Danville’s best friend. He was my friend, too.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.