A Life On Hold

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The Wright Story 

      An Unusual    


The Bishop's Kids 


In Dayton

  A Life on Hold 
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hen the Wrights moved back to Dayton for the last time, their mother was in poor health. Wilbur, a top-notch scholar and seemed bound for Yale where he planned to study to become a minister. He enrolled in Central High School and took college preparatory subjects such as advanced Latin, rhetoric, and trigonometry. He also played football, and his teammates remembered how swiftly he could run a ball down the field.

The Beginnings of Football

Troubles All Around

In the winter of 1886, his dreams of college came to an end when he was smashed in the face with a stick during a game of "shinny" (a precursor to hockey) and lost his upper front teeth. Complications ensued. Although his facial injuries healed, a few weeks afterwards he developed "nervous palpitations of the heart" and digestive problems. After a year's rest, these too disappeared, but Wilbur was somewhat changed. He thought himself an invalid (or at least as someone with a frail, vulnerable constitution) and decided that a college degree "would be money and time wasted." He may have also had a change of heart about leaving home, especially with his mother so sick – the Wrights were a tight-knit family. Whatever the reason, he put his life on hold and made it his job to nurse his mother Susan. His curiosity and his affinity for learning remained unchanged, however. When he wasn't looking after his mother, he read voraciously.

The Long Memory of the Wrights

Orville's interest in school waned. He too may have been been worried about his mother's health, but there is evidence of other problems. While still in  Richmond, he had been suspended from sixth grade for some mischief during the last few weeks of the school year and arrived in Dayton without a graduation certificate. He entered seventh grade and proved that he could handle the course work, but he apparently had some more mischief in him. His eighth- and ninth-grade teacher, Miss Jennings, kept him in a seat at the front of the class so she could keep an eye on him. His grades were passable, but unspectacular. He seemed to do better in math and science but not memorably so. His ninth-grade botany teacher, William Werthner, recalled him "...as a quiet boy, faithful in his work, but not strikingly different from the rest."

In 1889, the progressives in the United Brethren Church pushed through a new constitution allowing membership in secret societies. Bishop Milton Wright bitterly opposed this change and decided to split from his church. Secret societies such as the Masonic Order had been a pernicious influence in the early years of American politics. When the United States was very young, secret societies formed an elitist network that conferred upon their members unfair advantages in business and politics. Some secret societies like the Know-Nothings encouraged bigotry and violence. But by the latter half of the nineteenth century, these had mostly devolved into social clubs with only a vestige of their former  power. Nonetheless, the Bishop regarded the secret rituals and symbols employed by Freemasonry and others as a sacrilege. With other United Brethren conservatives, he organized a new sect, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (Old Constitution). At a church congress in  Pennsylvania, he was unanimously elected its head, then came home to Dayton to find his wife failing. A little more than a month later, Susan Wright died of tuberculosis.

Wilbur Wright was 17 when his family moved to Dayton, Ohio. He was an accomplished gymnast, football player, and scholar bound for college. All of that would change in the blink of an eye.

Ice skating on the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio.

Although Orville lost interest in school in general, he seemed to like the sciences. This painstakingly detailed sketch of a pussy willow branch is from his 1897 botany notebook.

The class of 1890 at Central High School in Dayton, Orville's last year in school. Orville stands in the middle of the doorway. His friend Paul Laurence Dunbar, who later became a great poet, stands at the upper left.

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The Wright Story/An Unusual Childhood/A Life on Hold

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers

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