Wright Scholar Jacqueline Chavez Orellana and C. Kenneth Wright.
Wright Scholar Jacqueline Chavez Orellana and C. Kenneth Wright.

Philanthropist and businessman C. Kenneth Wright, who helped transform VCU, dies

C. Kenneth Wright and VCU Engineering

For Kenneth Wright, making it real was both a philosophy and a daily mandate.

Where his legacy is most visible on the VCU Engineering campus is in the students. He treasured engineering majors for their intellectual curiosity and the can-do spirit with which they approach the real world. A self-made man, he was devoted to helping determined young people make their lives all they could be. Mr. Wright knew that, with a little bit of help, these students could take on even tougher challenges and do even bigger things. And as a brilliant businessman, he knew a good investment when he saw it.

Read more about Kenneth Wright

By Tom Gresham
University Public Affairs

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Kenneth Wright, a longtime businessman and philanthropist whose generous giving is credited with helping to build today’s Virginia Commonwealth University, died this week. He was 94.

Wright and his late wife, Dianne, who died in 2013, were dedicated supporters of VCU and the VCU Health System, including the VCU Massey Cancer Center. Their gifts were numerous and consequential, and they volunteered their time and expertise to the university and health system, said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. 

Wright “will never know how much he impacted the lives of literally thousands of people,” Rao said.

“He understood better than most how much VCU means to Virginia,” Rao said. “He left an indelible mark on our university and our health system and, most importantly, on those we serve together. We are forever grateful for his legacy of service and his vision for a better human experience for everyone. He was so much like our students: creative, focused, optimistic, inclusive, hard-working, determined and always committed to the highest standards. We will miss him dearly."

Marsha Rappley, M.D., VCU senior vice president for health sciences and VCU Health System CEO, said, “Mr. Wright had a spirit of giving that left me personally in awe. He believed that education, science, medicine and engineering will change lives for the better. And he dedicated himself to that.” 

Wright served as a trustee of the VCU College of Engineering Foundation and was on the College of Engineering Industrial Advisory Council. The Wrights were among the university’s largest donors, contributing more than $50 million. 

In 1999, the Wrights donated the building that had been the headquarters of Kenneth Wright’s business and was later renovated to become the home of the VCU Brandcenter. The Wrights created the Dianne Harris Wright Professorship for Gynecologic Oncology Research; created a cardiology scholars endowment within the School of Medicine; gave the initial gift to create the Eugene P. Trani Scholars Program, which provides support to exceptional undergraduate applicants; and made a $10.5 million gift to the School of Engineering Foundation that was recognized in the naming of the microelectronics lab as the C. Kenneth and Dianne Harris Wright Virginia Microelectronics Center.

Wright and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Foundation made a $16 million gift in 2015 to name the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, which fosters collaborative science and health care research among VCU investigators and students. The gift established six C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Distinguished Chairs in Clinical and Translational Research and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Physician-Scientist Scholars program. The Wright Center became the first federally funded center of its kind in Virginia and is renowned nationally for turning groundbreaking science into lifesaving care. 

“I was very sad to hear of the passing of Mr. Wright,” said F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., director and principal investigator of the Wright Center. “He was amazing in his support of clinical research at VCU. With his original gift of $16 million that he provided to support the newly named C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, he showcased the importance of the mission of the Wright Center: to translate basic research into a positive impact on the health of our community. In a large measure because of his support we were able to renew our Clinical and Translational Science Award last year, being one of only 58 funded centers across the U.S.

“On a more personal level, I will miss Mr. Wright’s genuinely positive and down-to-earth attitude,” Moeller said. “He was always excited about the research taking place at the Wright Center and VCU and happy he could support our mission.” 

A $5 million gift in 2017 established the Wright Engineering Access Scholarship Program, a flagship scholarship program to provide need- and merit-based awards to a broad base of College of Engineering students.

“We are deeply saddened by this loss and send our heartfelt condolences to Ken Wright's family and his large community of friends,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Dean of the College of Engineering. “His spirit will continue to live through our students and hundreds of future students who will be able to pursue their dreams because of the C. Kenneth Wright Engineering Access Scholarship program he founded at the VCU College of Engineering. Ken’s engaging manner and desire to create meaningful programs that help others will be honored across our campus. He valued the time he spent with our students and we valued the time we spent with him. He will indeed be missed.”

Wright was the president and owner of Wright Properties and Wright Investments. He also was the retired chairman of Rent-A-Car Company, Inc., an Avis franchise that he operated for more than 45 years. 

In 2011, VCU recognized Wright with its highest award when it presented him with an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony, Rao said Wright was a key figure in VCU’s transformation in the previous two decades, calling him “one of the architects — the man who helped design our future.” Wright said he had received many awards during the course of his lengthy business career but “nothing on the level that I’m receiving today.”

 

C. Kenneth Wright and VCU Engineering

C. Kenneth Wright built businesses that helped transform the city he loved into a beacon of opportunity. As a philanthropist, he looked at an urban university in the heart of Richmond and saw an engine of growth for the entire state. His name and that of his late wife Dianne now adorn research facilities across the VCU campus, centers of discovery where scholars of science, medicine and engineering work to improve life for humankind. He knew that, done right, a gift can radiate outward to an astonishing degree.

For Kenneth Wright, making it real was both a philosophy and a daily mandate.

Where his legacy is most visible on the VCU Engineering campus is in the students. He treasured engineering majors for their intellectual curiosity and the can-do spirit with which they approach the real world. A self-made man, he was devoted to helping determined young people make their lives all they could be. Mr. Wright knew that, with a little bit of help, these students could take on even tougher challenges and do even bigger things. And as a brilliant businessman, he knew a good investment when he saw it.

With that in mind, he established the Wright Engineering Access Scholarship program in 2017. Wanting to ensure that talented students could devote their whole selves to the rigors of an engineering education, he created a solution that could reduce or even eliminate reliance on loans and part-time jobs.

“Through the scholarship, I’ve been able to get better grades and study more with other engineering students to really understand the concepts involved in my courses,” said Arthur Chadwick, founder of Hyperloop at VCU and mechanical engineering major. “The scholarship has helped me focus on different opportunities in the engineering community like Hyperloop, without working outside jobs as much as I would have had to, which would have taken time away from why I’m going to school.”

Mr. Wright was especially passionate about creating opportunity for military veterans, returning students, community college transfer students, first-generation and immigrant students — the so-called nontraditional students whose numbers are large in VCU engineering. What could students with grit do if they could really focus on hands-on engineering, without the interruption of a work shift at a restaurant or store? Plenty, he wagered.

He was right. Two years after the scholarship was established, Wright Scholars have done graduate-level research, been invited to major conferences and international competitions and even graduated early. These young professionals are now paying it forward with their own gifts to the Wright Engineering Access Scholarship program. In this respect, they resemble C. Kenneth Wright. They have an eye for potential. They uplift other people. They know that vision is the start of anything great, but action is what gets it across the finish line. And like their benefactor, they are eager to spot and invest in the right stuff.

Paul Rocheleau, VCU Engineering’s director of strategic development, recently had an opportunity “to spend quality time with Ken,” discussing new solutions for students who persevere through significant adversity.

“There was an intensity to the gleam in his eye and the way he gripped my forearm as he said, ‘Please make sure all my students know that in this country, if you are honest, work hard and treat everyone with respect, you will have wonderful opportunities and succeed beyond your imagination.’

“Ken traveled through his life with a wonderful gift,” said Rocheleau, “always seeing the best in people and engaging with a spirit of joy and happiness. He very much wanted to pass this gift to hundreds of others and firmly believed that a high-quality education is one of the best ways to do so.”

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