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81-Year-Old Alumna Mixes Teaching Career with Concrete Business

Helen Cody WrightHelen Cody Wright is nearly 82, taught school for 36 years, and for more than 20 years has run a successful concrete business behind her home in Amelia County, where she's lived for all but the two years she attended Longwood in the late 1930s. She works 12 hours a day, five days a week, and has no plans to slow down.

"I'll keep working as long as I'm physically and mentally able," she says. "I don't know how long that'll be.

I had never been to the hospital until I broke my hip in June of 2000 and had to have a hip replacement. The accident happened here at the plant. I was in a hurry, hooked my foot and stumbled. I was back at work in five weeks, though."

Mrs. Wright is the president of W.F. Wright Inc., which operates as Wright's Ready Mix and was started in 1964 by her late husband, William Francis Wright, whom she refers to as "Mister Wright." The only office employee except for a woman who helps with the bookwork in the afternoon, and whose father she taught, Mrs. Wright answers the phones, takes orders and directs her drivers via radio.

"Let's just say I manage the office," she says. "I get over here every morning between 5:30 and quarter to 6, and

I stay until the last truck comes in at 6, 7 or whatever. I have about a 12-hour day, most of the time. I have a Richmond phone line and an Amelia line, and one of them's ringing most of the time. I'd be lost if I didn't have the business.

I enjoy working and enjoy contact with the public. When Mister Wright gave me the business, I was determined that it wouldn't go backward, and it hasn't. It's grown, which is the reason for the long hours I put in. I didn't want to let it go."

The business is in a bucolic setting at the crossroads of routes 669 and 681 in the Truxillo (pronounced Trucks-illo) area of Amelia, within sight of Truxillo's Store and less than 100 feet behind the brick house where she's lived for 67 years. She was born in a house on the same spot; the one there now replaced that one after it burned down in 1934. "So, I'm a native of Truxillo," says the woman who'll turn 82 on December 20.

Mrs. Wright, who is distantly related to the legendary William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, is the epitome of a dignified Southern lady, and several times during an interview she modestly protested that she wasn't worth a story. "I really don't think I have much of a story to tell." To one question, she responded "Are you writing a history of the company?" Nevertheless, in between phone calls and employees dropping into her office, she talked about both of her careers.

"For years I had my office in the house, but I needed more space. This (office) used to be the lean-to section of an old barn. I just closed it in and made it into a garage at one end, where we store and work on the equipment, and an office on the other end." Asked the distance between her back door and her office, she glanced out the office window next to her desk. "Why, it's no more than a 'hoop and a holler."

She attended Longwood, then the Farmville State Teachers College, from 1936 to 1938 and graduated with a Normal Professional certificate, a two-year program for future teachers. "That's the longest I was away from here, the two years I was at Farmville." She attended several summer school sessions at Longwood and night classes at the University of Virginia and the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) to renew her teaching certificate. "All I ever wanted to be was a teacher. My 6th grade teacher, Mazie Lee Hines, also a two-year Longwood girl, had inspired me to be a teacher. She was the best teacher I ever had."

The first five years of her career, Mrs. Wright taught 3rd through 5th grades at Promise Land School, a three-room school. "The School Board had a rule then that if you had attended school in the village (Amelia Courthouse, five miles away), you couldn't teach in the village, because you might know some of your students. That rule was rescinded and then I moved to Amelia Elementary School in the village, where I taught 4th grade for 24 years.

Later, I taught 4th grade at Russell Grove Elementary for seven years and retired in 1974."

Amelia Elementary, nolonger a school, is called the Hindle Building and is used by the Amelia Historical Society for art shows and classes. Russell Grove, which had been a school for African-Americans before integration, currently houses Amelia Middle School.

"I loved every day I taught. Some days were better than others, of course. I keep in touch with lots of former students, and some are customers. Some visit me regularly, which I enjoy. Some of the students I taught, I wouldn't have given you two cents for in the fourth grade, but they have done remarkably well."

Among her students were Judge Valentine Southall, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge in Amelia; Dr. Betty Jo Simmons ('60), a longtime Longwood education professor and former Amelia County School Board member; Dr. Helen Warriner-Burke ('56), a current member of the School Board and former supervisor of foreign languages for the Virginia Education Department; and Darlene Selz, the chief financial officer of the Longwood Foundation.

"Mrs. Wright is one of the primary reasons I decided to be a teacher," Dr. Simmons says. "Of all my early teachers, she's the one of whom I have the fondest memories. She did a wonderful job teaching Virginia history. She was not only an effective teacher, but she's always been such a gracious lady, and someone who was interested in rural kids."

Yellow SiloWright's Ready Mix makes and delivers concrete and also septic tanks.
The company has 16 employees and nine trucks. At least once a day, and sometimes two or three times, their supplier, Roanoke Cement Co., delivers cement and blows it, hydraulically, up into their silo, where it's mixed with sand, stone, water and various admixtures. The yellow silo, just behind the office, can hold three tanker loads of bulk cement. The tanker usually delivers 55,000 pounds.

"When Mister Wright started the business, I kept the books and helped full-time in the summer," she says. "I did the office before and after school. I helped full-time beginning in 1974 after retiring, as Mister Wright's health declined. He retired about 1980, and since then I've had complete management. He died in 1984. I'm proud of the business. We have customers not only in Amelia, but also in Chesterfield and Powhatan, and even in Nottoway and Cumberland. Before we started, if you wanted cement in Amelia you had to go to Blackstone or Crewe, and sometimes you had to wait several days.

We started with one used truck, then several used trucks ­ we would drive 'em all day and work on 'em all night. Then we got to the point where we could buy new trucks. We have three drivers who have been here more than 30 years. We don't have much turnover.

"As a teacher, I had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, but I don't think I'm as strict with the business, though the other day I told one employee I was going to make him stand in the corner," she says, smiling. "Jim Tennefoss is our vice president and will eventually take over. He's been here since very shortly after we started. His son Randy also works in the business."

Wright's Ready-MixJim, who took a break from doing welding on a truck to give a visitor a tour, was asked how long he's been with the company. "Forever," he laughed. In January of last year he flew to Minnesota to pick up the company's newest truck, which weighs 30 tons full and 15 tons empty. "They're not hard to drive," he says. Most of their trucks are made by International Harvester, and all are adorned with the company's logo on both sides of the cab: a black, oval-shaped "Wright's Ready-Mix" sticker superimposed over a horizontal red line, with thin blue lines above and below.

Mrs. Wright was asked if it's unusual for a woman to run a concrete business. "Everyone refers to it as 'Miz Wright's Concrete,'" she replied with a smile, adding that most women in this line of work run a business with their husband rather than on their own.

Mrs. Wright has established scholarships at Longwood; Richard Bland College, which was named for an ancestor of her husband's; and Amelia County High School (ACHS). The Longwood scholarship, which is endowed and was created in 1990, is awarded annually to an academically deserving student from Amelia. The ACHS scholarship is given to graduates who will attend Longwood, William
& Mary, or a trade school. "Most of those scholarships have gone to sons and daughters of former students," she says. "I taught the mother and the grandmother of one. Another recipient, Roy Lankford, went to Nashville diesel school and returned to come to work here as a mechanic."

For about 20 years Mrs. Wright has served on the board of directors of the James L. Hamner Public Library in Amelia. "I've always been interested in children's literature and I funded the children's reading room in that library, which was named in my honor last July. I'm proud of that."

She also is a member of the Amelia Industrial Development Authority, the Amelia Business Association, the DAR, and the Virginia Historical Society, and she is a charter member of Tau chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, an education honor society. In 1995 she was selected to the Amelia High School Hall of Fame, for which one must be an exemplary role model for youth, and has served on the First Virginia Southside Bank's board of directors for several years.

Mrs. Wright is unabashed in her love for her longtime surroundings. "My brother, who moved away from here, once told me I was in a rut; I said it's a comfortable groove. I've always liked Amelia and have always been interested in its history. Huntington Church, the oldest church in Amelia, which probably dates to before 1750, was located on what is my property (she owns 400 acres). When they named the road out in front here, I recommended that they name it Huntington Church Lane, which they did. The first Amelia courthouse, which began in 1735, was only 200 to 300 yards away, on adjoining property.

"My only real hobby is genealogy. I have a season ticket to Swift Creek Mill Playhouse, and, through my husband's nephew, who grows Polled Hereford cattle, about every other year I go to meetings around the country of the Polled Hereford organization. I like cattle and really want to be a farmer, I guess. I'm also interested in boating. Mister Wright and I used to have a 35-foot boat that we kept in Gloucester, but he got rid of that. Then we got a 28-foot boat, which I also got rid of after he died."

In front of Mrs. Wright's home is a 35-foot flag pole with U.S. and Virginia flags. "Every year on Mister Wright's birthday, May 5, I put up a new (U.S.) flag, since he was a veteran (he served with the Army in New Guinea in World War II). They last about a year. When I give people directions, I usually tell them about the 35-foot flag pole."

Kent Booty
Associate Editor


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