Inspired by a selection of photos taken during their tenure, the Wrightons discuss their love story, life in Harbison House and thoughts on their legacy.
Tell the story of how you met.
Risa Zwerling Wrighton (RZW): [In 1995] I read about the newly selected chancellor in the newspaper, and I thought to myself, “Why can’t I meet a guy like that? I mean, he just needs to meet me.” So I wrote him a letter. I was doing direct-mail marketing for a living at that time, so I really knew how to target my audience.
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton (MSW): I received many letters upon the announcement of my appointment. When I read Risa’s letter, I thought, “Hmm, what is this all about?” I thought, “Maybe she’s trying to sell me insurance.” So I asked her about her interest in the university, and she said she had none. Even so, we met for lunch two weeks after my arrival.
RZW: It was at Cardwell’s in Clayton. And it was July 15, and it must have been 115 degrees. It was extremely hot, but Mark was wearing like a 15-piece suit and had all kinds of layers on. He was cool as a cucumber, and he had his attaché case with him at lunch.
MSW: I was there first, and I saw Risa coming in. Of course, I didn’t know for sure who it was. But I was delighted to meet her. She had a great personality right from the outset and looked beautiful. And we had an easy conversation, even though she subsequently joked about my ordering a hamburger and a kir.
RZW: Yes, a hamburger, french fries and a kir. I didn’t even know what a kir was, but it seemed odd to have with a hamburger.
Describe some memorable moments at Harbison House.
MSW: That’s a great photo of me! Makes me look like a professional bowler!
RZW: Well, this picture shows a bowling party. Over the years, we looked for opportunities to bring different student groups in, and my hope was that every student who came to WashU would have at least one chance in their four years to come to the house for something.
MSW: Another memorable event, and I thank Risa for this, is that we have a reception for Home Plate families and for students who are being hosted by those families.
RZW: And that’s a big party, because typically we have several hundred students participating in Home Plate and lots of families, typically 50 to 60 families a year. [The Home Plate program is] the simplest concept of just opening your house and inviting a student over or a group of students over and feeding them. Over the years, we’ve had about 350 families in the community open their homes to students, and it’s just been an incredibly gratifying program.
MSW: Risa is always a great host, and we do a variety of special events here at Harbison House. It’s a wonderful place. We didn’t know that Washington University would be such a great party school, not for the students, but for us and the faculty.
What would you like your legacy to be?
RZW: I do love that Andy Newman, who has done so much to support the libraries, decided to make [a study area] called Risa’s Landing. Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think about all the people I’ve gotten to meet. I hope my legacy is that I’ve added to the spirit of Washington University as being a place that’s very special for students — and that students rule. This is their time. We’re here for them. And just the thought of having launched so many young lives on paths of making a difference in the world is thrilling.
MSW: I know that people think of me as a person who has been associated with the development of a large number of buildings. And that’s true. I’m proud of that. But it’s what takes place in those buildings that’s so important. We’ve created more than 300 endowed professorships, thanks to the generosity of people who care about the university. And these professorships have been awarded to exceptional faculty and people who are making a difference in their field. So that is something that I’m very proud of.
Are you ready to say goodbye?
RZW: I was an overprotective parent, a smothering academic adviser, and now, as we are going to be the former first family, I’m going to try to keep my distance. But as I say, we’re just a block away in case anybody needs us. There are many, many people here who make this place the family that it is. We just got to be the ringleaders for 24 years. And it was such a thrill. So this isn’t goodbye; it’s just auf wiedersehen [German phrase that translates to “until we meet again”].
MSW: One of the things I’ve so enjoyed about this community is that it’s not complacent. Individuals want to do more and do better, and I’m confident that this commitment will continue. People here respect each other, work with and for each other, and this collaborative spirit is going to be so important as we look to the future. The most challenging issues that we face as a society will require people of talent and dedication coming from many disciplines to address these problems. And I’m confident that Washington University — through its students, through its faculty, through its staff — will continue to bring great value to society.