Betty Wright
Publication Date: Wednesday May 7, 1997

Betty Wright

According to Webster's dictionary, a person is said to be dedicated if her or she is committed "to a particular course or action." To achieve this state requires a conscious decision by the committing person. In her view, Betty Wright never made such a conscious decision regarding the lifelong activities for which she has been honored many times, not only locally, but at national and international levels.

To Betty, her "thing" has always been nothing more than a natural extension of who she is and as important to the integrity of her life as any of the basic human needs. Betty's "thing," however, has motivated, enriched and empowered the lives of more than three generations of disabled children and adults.

Today, Betty finds herself among the disabled as she experiences the debilitating effects of osteoporosis in her spine. Although this limits her mobility, it does not limit her active vocal support of the disabled.

She is clearly infected with a passion: a passion to assist people in their desire to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Born near Seattle, Betty at age 3 moved with her family to Berkeley. She was the youngest of five surviving children and the only girl. "I was spoiled rotten," she said.

By the age of 5 she was accompanying her mother, Elizabeth Larke, to the Oakland Children's Hospital, where Betty volunteered as a "recreation specialist." This was Betty's first experience in working with disabled children.

"They would bring kids into an atrium in wheelchairs and on gurney. The kids would throw these cloth balls back and forth to each other, and I would pick up the balls when they missed. They loved it."

Her interest in volunteerism was encouraged by a mother Betty greatly admired. Elizabeth was an officer in the Army and later became the chief morale officer at the Presidio in San Francisco.

While still living in Berkeley, Betty also volunteered at the Berkeley School for the Deaf and Blind. The family moved eventually across the Bay to a home near Golden Gate Park, since both parents were then working in San Francisco.

Betty's most extensive and best known work involved the use and development of therapeutic swimming to promote self-sufficiency. But swimming did not come easily to her. A friend of the family wanted to take 7-year-old Betty fishing. Her mother, however, insisted that she first learn to swim. The family friend took Betty to San Francisco's Sutro Baths to teach her swimming by the "sink or swim" method.

The lesson was a disaster that left Betty terrified of swimming and in the hospital recovering from the pneumonia she contracted after inhaling Sutro Bath water.

Six years later, another close friend convinced Betty to give swimming another chance. Jackie McGee was an excellent open water swimmer and quickly had Betty swimming.

After a few months of improving her skills, Betty started to teach swimming to other children at the YWCA pool in San Francisco.

She was initially interested only in children like herself who had a fear of swimming and needed special attention. But when a group of retarded children started coming to the pool, Betty began to work with them. "I started teaching them and I got hooked." She has been "hooked" ever since.

Teaching swimming at the YWCA was not Betty's first experience with teaching as a teenager. She was an avid dancer starting from about age 6. "I was devoted to dancing," she said.

To encourage her interest, Betty's father built a dance studio in the basement of their San Francisco home. Here, at age 13, she began teaching others.

Throughout her teenage years Betty was teaching, either dancing at home or swimming at various pools in San Francisco. She continued also to volunteer at various schools and institutions for the disabled and handicapped.

When Betty was 7, while the family lived in Berkeley, one of her brothers brought home a young male friend, John R. Wright. "He was the most handsome man I had ever seen," she said.

Even though John was 11 years older, the very young Betty decided to fall in love. She had to wait quite a few years, but in 1930 they were married. Betty and John (now deceased) had two children, and she now has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In the beginning, John was not able to offer Betty very much, but he did promise her diamonds, emeralds and a swimming pool. The diamonds and emeralds came with her engagement ring, the pool did not arrive until 1950.

But the pool changed not only Betty's life but the lives of many. "I did not like the house. But I was supposed to be in this house because of the pool. We had a large patio and a greenhouse that was used as a dressing room. It was a very nice arrangement."

Betty started with teaching her own children to swim, then her children's friends, then others who learned about her by word of mouth. In 1953, the Wright Swim School in Barron Park was established, with Betty instructing a mixture of able-bodied and disabled children. She also trained a loyal corps of volunteers and former pupils to assist in the teaching activities, especially with the handicapped swimmers.

During this time she perfected a unique one-pupil-one-instructor concept of teaching swimming particularly suited to the needs of the disabled. She also developed the plans for her ideal swimming pool for the disabled, a heated indoor pool that would have a wheelchair ramp and shallow rise steps with railings, among other features.

In 1969, Betty's "dream pool" was realized with the opening of the indoor swimming facility at the Community Association for Rehabilitation (CAR) in Palo Alto. Betty was a prime motivator in getting this facility constructed and was the director of the CAR swim program for 14 years.

The swim facility and the swim programs, the largest of the eight programs offered at CAR, have earned an international reputation for their success and innovation. The facility was named by CAR as the Betty Wright Swim Center.

Additionally, in memory of her husband, Betty established the John R. Wright Memorial Library at CAR. This is the largest library of its kind with books and periodicals devoted exclusively to the disabled and disabilities.

Although osteoporosis and a rheumatic disease called reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (RSDS) have curtailed much of her physically active life, Wright is still involved today as a human resource specialist for CAR, working primarily out of her home.

In addition, she still travels to Stanford University, where she teaches ("facilitates") a class titled, "Experience Based Study on the Meaning of Being Disabled." She has been teaching this class for the last 22 years.

Betty tends to be very modest about her accomplishments. She states that she really doesn't teach a class at Stanford, she is just a facilitator for the other people who do the teaching. And most of the accomplishments at the Betty Wright Swim Center were made by her staff and corps of trained volunteers.

Yet all of these activities would not exist without the passion and inspiration she has lavished on them.

--Mickey R. Shanabarger 

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