By Tom Larson
Jerry Wright was all smiles as he walked through the new West Central Research and Outreach Center building and showed off the new auditorium, remodeling and new energy systems. It's an impressive renovation project, to be sure, and Wright's pleasantly subdued demeanor is justified.
The complete, $3.3 million overhaul of the 1970s-era building began last spring, and since then the WCROC's station head has been working out of a modest office that would normally be a bedroom in an aging rambler the station owns next door.
Wright paused in the space under construction that was -- and will be -- his office and took in the sweeping views. But Wright has always preferred to be out among the vistas, with the people who live among them, rather than just looking at them from a window.
Since Oct. 1, Wright has been officially retired. He will serve as Interim Head until a full-time replacement is hired. There's a chance he might not have much time to enjoy his newly remodeled office, but it won't bother him. For 33 years, Wright hasn't been the type of educator who spent a lot of time sitting in offices.
"I've always been a person who liked working with farmers and my job gave me an opportunity to do that," said Wright, who will be 65 next year. "You work one-on-one and help them find solutions to their problems."
Wright grew up on a farm in Stanley, N.D. His brother still farms their parents' land. Wright was interested in agriculture, math and physics, and he earned a degree in ag engineering from North Dakota State University. His first job was designing farm tires for Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, but he returned to North Dakota to work with Extension and the Bureau of Indian Affairs dealing with water issues. It would become the defining focus of his career.
"Water sustainability is an area of big interest," Wright said. "It's ensuring that water stays there and is protected. It's riparian rights - you have a right to use it but it technically belongs to all people in the state. People know the value of water. If you're in an area where there's not good water, the quality of life is not good."
Wright worked with the Extension Service often in North Dakota and that sparked an interest in him when a position opened up in Brooten, Minn., in 1976.
"I've always been a person who liked working with farmers and (Extension) gave me an opportunity to do that," Wright said. "One-on-one, helping them find solutions to their problems."
In the fall of 1981, Wright moved to what is now the West Central Research and Outreach Center. The primary reason?
"I wanted a computer," Wright said with a smile. "They said if I wanted a computer, I'd have to move to Morris. (The WCROC) had one computer and you had to phone in to connect - you couldn't take it home. Now, I have two laptops and a desktop computer."
But it was more than the burgeoning technology that kept Wright at the WCROC all these years. Colleagues and the daily contact with land owners made the job the only one Wright would ever want.
"I settled in," Wright said. "I've always said that after you graduate college, you'll have three jobs. I've been different places and I found my niche."
Wright and his wife of 39 years, Sue, will travel to see their three children and six grandchildren. Wright also will pursue his hobbies in genealogy, gardening and volunteer work.
And he will be around to spend some time in the WCROC new building.
"It's neat for the community and university to have a new building here to complement the good work done here," he said. "I view it as a pretty good commitment from the university to the community. When you put something like that up, you know it's going to be here for awhile."