A long-time role model not only for women runners but senior runners in the Charleston area, Margaret Wright, died Wednesday at the age of 94.
“Margaret was a runner ahead of her time,” says Cedric Jaggers, author of “Charleston’s Cooper River Bridge Run,” who stayed in touch with Wright long after her running days were over. “She was a true treasure. We (he and wife Kathy Jaggers) loved her very much.”
Wright mentored a much younger Kathy Jaggers and other female runners in those early years.
“She took me under her wing and encouraged me,” said Kathy. “She wanted all women to feel like they could do this (run races).”
Due to Parkinson’s disease and later macular degeneration, Wright stopped running races for more than a dozen years, but she still managed to live alone and independently until about a year ago when she moved in with her daughter, Susan Wright Guinn.
In 1978, the then 56-year-old lab technician and mother of five grown children heard about plans to run over the Cooper River bridge and she started training for it. She was one of only 766 finishers in that first race and only 15 percent were women.
The experience would begin a quarter century of running.
In 2002, before she ran her 24th Bridge Run and 775th race of her life, she was inducted in the inaugural Cooper River Bridge Run Hall of Fame. She also was profiled in The Post and Courier and recalled how she was “embarrassed” when she first started training for the Bridge Run in January 1978.
“I didn’t want anybody to see me running,” said Wright, adding that she ran only at night, wore dark clothes and if a car approached, she’d stop and walk.
“I didn’t know anything about running. I thought Adidas was a town in Greece. I really did.”
On the day of the first bridge run, she wore corduroy pants but finished in 71 minutes and embarked on a whole new world.
“I was so proud I finished and so proud of that (bridge run) T-shirt that I went and showed it to everyone at work on the Monday afterwards. ... You would have thought it was made of gold.”
Wright meticulously recorded her running statistics. On March 19, 2002, she had logged 23,106 miles of running.
The late Dave Mellard, interviewed for the 2002 story about Wright, was also 80 at the time and recalled how rare she was on the racing scene in the late 1970s.
“When I first started running, there weren’t a lot of women out there,” said Mellard. “Margaret has become a symbol for women. Yet Margaret has never promoted herself or been boastful about her accomplishments. She’s done it in a very modest way. She was just Margaret. She’s a very fine person.”
When asked to describe Wright, Mellard came up with one word: determined.
In her last few years of running, Wright continued despite battling Parkinson’s disease.
“Margaret’s ailments would deter most people from running, but Margaret keeps going,” Mellard said.
While Wright may be known around town for her physical pursuits, she was firmly rooted in a simple, spiritual life, volunteering for years at her church, Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church on Folly Beach. Wright joked that while she was considered a volunteer “sexton,” she joked “I’m a glorified janitor.”
But she credited her spiritual nature as being one of the reasons she was devoted to running, which she described as “a form of meditation.”
“I often say my prayers when I run. It’s a religious experience for me. It always has been.”
Born Margaret Ada Brooks on May 2, 1921, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Thelma and James Brooks, a supervisor in the U.S. Forest Service, she gained the love of being active and outdoors early in life.
Though her parents wanted a large family, Wright said her mother had several miscarriages. Wright’s only sibling is Marianne, who is 12 years younger than she and lives in Hartford, Conn.
Wright said she had a happy childhood “living the life of a tomboy” in Kooskia, Idaho, and then Missoula, Mont., where she attended schools at which three grades met in one room and where winter blizzards buried houses.
“It’s all fond memories. We did our chores and played. We made camps in the woods,”said Wright. “I used to run all the time. When my mother wanted something at the grocery store, I’d run. I didn’t walk. ... I was a skinny little thing.
“We played outdoors a lot more than kids do today. We didn’t have all the fancy toys kids have today. We had simple pleasures, and I think we were a lot happier.”
Life would change for Margaret when, as young teen-ager, her father was transferred to Atlanta.
“It was a big change,” said Wright. “People didn’t accept me. They thought I was a Yankee even though I was a Westerner. ... A teacher humiliated me because of the way I talked, so I learned to talk like a Southerner.”
As a teen-age girl in the Depression era South, Wright didn’t play organized sports but was active playing basketball, riding bikes and running races.
Graduating cum laude from high school, Wright headed to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, largely because the school had a good work-study program. She stayed active playing intramural field hockey and basketball and taking “tumbling,” or gymnastics.
In 1944, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in childhood development and started an adventurous young adulthood.
During wartime, she took a job as an airplane electrical inspector at a bomber factory and later joined the Army to work in the mail and records departments. That led to a job with the State Department at the American Embassy in Ankara, Turkey.
There, she met future husband Paul Wright, who worked with classified information as a code writer.
After he was transferred to Karachi, India (now Pakistan), Wright wrote Brooks a letter proposing marriage. She accepted, quit her job, and they got married before even meeting each other’s parents.
The young couple then took about three months off, boarded a freighter crossing the Pacific Ocean and came home for a visit.
Shortly thereafter, the State Department transferred the Wrights to Tunisia, where the young couple experienced their first bump in the road of life. Margaret gave birth to their first child, but the baby died after only three days. Afterward, Margaret became sick. Tests showed that she had hepatitis and amoebic dysentery.
“The doctors said I got it in Turkey, but it wasn’t diagnosed until after I had the baby. ... I was really sick at that point,”she said.
The illness changed the course of their lives.
Margaret told her husband that they could not have a family living in Third World conditions and that they needed to go back to the United States. Paul, who like Margaret wanted a family, left the Foreign Service and landed an advertising job with Sears in Atlanta. It was the 1950s. And they got busy having a family.
After being transferred around, Paul quit his job and the couple, now with four young children and one on the horizon, moved to the Charleston area in 1955 and eventually found a place to settle: Folly Beach.
“We liked the ocean. My husband grew up on Cape Cod and he loved it. We all liked it here on Folly Beach,” she said. “It was quiet and peaceful back then. Not like it is now with all the traffic and stack shacks (condominiums).”
The Wrights lived in about four houses before settling in one on the marsh, blocks away from the Catholic Church, in 1968. The house was built in the 1930s, and Margaret lived there up until she moved in with her daughter.
Folly Beach was an ideal place for the self-described tomboy to raise a family.
Even at age 80 — 13 years ago — Wright had a message that is as pertinent now as it was then.
People needed to stay in motion.
“I like to inspire people to run,” said Wright. “We’re getting to be a nation of obese people. I’m trying to fight that, to encourage people to get moving.”
“MARGARET “”MARGIE”” ADA BROOKS WRIGHT”
BORN: May 2, 1921, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
RESIDENCE: Folly Beach.
FAMILY: Children, Susan Guinn, 50, of Charleston; Howard Wright, 48, of Canyon Lake, Calif.; Ralph Wright, 46, of Folly Beach; Willie Wright, 44, of Johns Island; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
EDUCATION: B.A. in childhood development, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
CHURCH: Our Lady of Good Counsel, Folly Beach.
HOBBIES: Reading, yard work and collecting teddy bears.
FORMER OCCUPATIONS: Airplane electrical inspector for a bomber factory; mail clerk for U.S. Army and State Department (Turkey and India); mother of five; lab technician, supervisor of the urinalysis lab and clinical faculty member, the Medical University of South Carolina.
A FOND CHILDHOOD MEMORY: In Idaho, I won a bunch of pink ribbons at a county track meet when I was 12.
FAVORITE BOOK: “Freedom in Exile,”by the Dalai Lama.
ONE REGRET: I never got to run a marathon. I signed up and trained for the New York City Marathon, but got hurt before I could go.
SOMETHING ACQUAINTANCES DON’T KNOW ABOUT ME: I’m addicted to two TV soap operas.
I?M FOND OF: Pickup trucks and beer. I love to drive pickup trucks and always have one beer after every morning training run. But I never drink and drive.
ADVICE TO YOUNG PEOPLE: Keep moving. Get off the couch. Do something.
FIRST RACE: The inaugural Cooper River Bridge Run, 1978.