Thursday would have been the 70th birthday of the late Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright. The beloved longtime city leader committed suicide in May, and his family is celebrating his memory this week by raising money for a favorite cause and raising awareness of mental illness.
Wright was Hickory's mayor for 16 years, an enthusiastic ambassador known for showing up at ribbon cuttings and handing out keys to the city to visitors. So it was a shock - even to those close to him - when took his own life May 11, using an antique handgun he owned. His family didn't even know it worked.
A friend advised his daughter, Ashley, about making a public statement.
“She very sweetly said you could say he wasn't well, or come up with something to say,” Ashley said. “And I said, 'Well, clearly it's not my decision to make. I need to talk to my brothers and my mom about it, but I can't imagine us covering anything up.'”
A day after his death, the family acknowledged Rudy's suicide publicly. The statement noted that mental illness and depression affect many people - no matter their standing in the community.
His widow and business partner, Donna Wright, said Rudy would've wanted it that way,
“We always felt like, and Rudy always felt this way too, that he had nothing to hide. I heard him say it many the time. When campaigns and things came around, he never once said I'm worried about the talk, because I have nothing to hide. I am what I am. And he didn't. He was a true loyal person.
“And it just, it was very heart wrenching when this happened, and I didn't even realize it. I knew that he had some anxiety problems. He always had a little bit of that when he started to run for a campaign. He said, you know, he didn't like running the campaign, but he liked being mayor. I don't think we really ever entertained the idea of not being just straightforward with it,” Donna Wright said.
She hopes that by speaking out about mental illness, they can help others.
“Just the other day I had someone tell me that her husband - their daughter had a problem - he was afraid. He wouldn't mention it. He wouldn't talk about it. 'And since you all came out with this, he's been much more open with the problems.' If it serves some good in the community, and helps just one person, then it was well worth it, you know, as far as being open with it. That's the way I feel about it,” she said.
With stories like that, it’s clearly already having that effect.
“I've had numerous friends really, approach me and tell me. I've had notes, I've had wonderful notes from people, that have said how much they appreciate. They've said they've had suicide in their family, or they had depression in it. There aren't many families that aren't untouched in some way,” Donna Wright said.
Nearly two months
Five weeks after Rudy Wright's death, the family - including sons Justin and Glenn - is still dealing with grief, but also thinking about broader issues related to suicide. They've written letters to public officials at city hall, the General Assembly and Congress calling for stricter gun control laws and better insurance coverage for mental health. Rudy had gotten a concealed carry permit, says Ashley, though his family didn't want a gun in the house.
“We made the decision as a family to use the bit of a voice that we have and reach out to those who are directly responsible for making the policy decisions around health care, and again, around gun control. And (we) did send letters to those lawmakers, many of whom did know dad on a certainly professional and some on a personal level, just to let them know this is a real thing and there are real people behind this. And it's important that we not just take a political stance, because these decisions do affect people on a very personal and intimate level,” Ashley Wright said.
The family also is celebrating Rudy Wright's life and passions. On what would have been his 70th birthday Thursday night, they attended a Hickory Crawdads game, where they kicked off a campaign to build a Habitat house and community center in a neighborhood in Hickory.