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Remembering Roger Wright

A Deeper Look into Value of Weight Training

Former Student Remembers Mr. Wright (see below)

I want to tell you about an old training partner and friend who died recently, after a 20-year battle with cancer. He was 66. I am rarely emotional in public, but I laughed—and cried—during the beautifully orchestrated celebration of his life. The celebration took place in the performing arts center of a high school near his home northwest of Albuquerque. I knew that Roger was movie-star handsome and a much-loved teacher and principal in the Albuquerque Public School System. What I didn’t know is that bulging muscles were part of his teaching repertoire, that practical jokes were his specialty, that he had a beautiful “lyrical bass” voice, and that he gave the best hugs ever. He was also fearless.

Roger was perhaps the most simpatico training partner I ever had. He was a joy to be around, always upbeat and ready to lift. We trained for and traveled to Olympic lifting competitions together. Our wives also became friends. Regina and Carol had “Albuquerque Weightlifting” t-shirts made up for all four of us. (We still have ours.) On our return, they met us at the airport wearing the t-shirts, with balloons, and a big sign reading “Welcome Home Champs.” We didn’t always win, but we were always champs in their eyes. It was a magical time. 

This is the second time I’ve written about Roger; the first was about 30 years ago. We spent an unforgettable afternoon—it seems like yesterday—catching up on the goings-on in our lives; among other things, we compared notes on why we had continued to train in the decade or so since we trained together. That conversation became the cornerstone of a section called “Why I Train” in Ripped 2, my second book.

He had been working out in his garage gym. Regina was a practicing nurse. Their daughter, Anndee, then 12, was a champion gymnast. His teaching career was going well; he was in line for a principal-ship. He was 38 years old and, unlike me, still had a full head of hair. He was broad shouldered and as handsome as ever. Everything was going his way and, one assumes, would continue to do so whether or not he trained.

Nevertheless, he kept training. Working out had become an integrating factor in his life. He said it was like a “ball of string” winding its way through his life, tying everything together. He felt like everything was all right as long as he was lifting. He saw himself as a lifter. When he stood in front of group of students, parents or teachers, it was important to know that he presented a picture of fitness. He liked the feeling of being strong, of having big muscles and a flat stomach. He wouldn’t feel right facing the world with atrophied muscles and a pot belly.

I knew how he felt, because I felt the same way. Still do.

Roger also liked the feeling of control he got from training. So many things are beyond our control. That’s why it’s important to have a sanctuary where you’re in control, even if it’s only in your gym. The hour or so spent in the gym has a calming effect. Controlling the stress in the gym makes you better able to tolerate the chaos on the outside.

It was a powerful idea—and Roger expressed it with great clarity. 

There was only one problem, he added. We were going to end up with gigantic balls of string. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with mine,” he said, smiling.

That was Roger, seeing the humor in something as dear to him as training.

He continued to train throughout his life. He told me in a letter a few years later that he supposed that his string would eventually be woven into a shawl or coat to keep his “ole body warm and cozy.”

“That would make me happy,” he added. It must’ve worked out that way because, even at the very end, he was still talking about getting back into the gym.

His daughter, Anndee—who became the CEO of “Defined Fitness,” a thriving New Mexico gym and fitness business—told Carol and me that Roger was never angry or resentful about his cancer. Life had thrown him a vicious curve ball and he coped with it.

“He lived a good part of his life with cancer, but he never let it define him,” his family wrote in the brochure handed out at the celebration. “He said that Cancer can kill me but I WILL NOT let it take my life! My life is MY life. He was not cured but he was healed. He remained playful and funny, loving and always grateful…All of us can reminisce in his crazy, endless sense of humor and he would want us to do that. He was easy to be around, easy to know, easy for him to find joy in everyday.”

*  *  *

Roger’s influence extended far beyond the walls of his garage gym.

“After ending my gymnastics career [see below], I continued to satisfy my need for physical activity through weight lifting and cardiovascular training,” Anndee wrote. “I have no doubt that this was because of him. I was even able to make a career out of it and a wonderful living through Defined Fitness. I have been lucky enough to marry a man who believes in the physical and mental re-charging of a good workout and our son carries on the family tradition as well. We are three generations that have made a life-long commitment to physical health through weight training. And we owe it all to my dad.”

Anndee won five state championships in gymnastics and competed nationally against Mary Lou Retton.

Roger would occasionally work out with Anndee at Defined Fitness, but his sanctuary continued to be his garage gym. “I was always so proud to work out with him,” Anndee continued. “I mean how many 20-year-old women have a dad that could bench press ‘8 wheels’ for reps?!”

Anndee left Defined Fitness a few years ago to become Director of Development at the University of NM Law School. She and her husband bought her parents’ home, adding in-law quarters for Roger and Regina. Roger continued to train in his garage, often with Anndee.

“I have gained a new appreciation for the home gym,” she told us.  “It became more difficult for him to leave the house so we would work out together in the garage. And this past year, I have worked out more at home than at Defined Fitness.”    

Her thoughtful explanation reflects Roger’s influence: “These last few years, training has meant more to me than just enhancing my physical stature. It is when and where I am able to clear my head. It is what I do when I need to work through a problem. It relieves the stress and puts life in perspective or it is what I do when I am feeling good and want to feel great. Nothing can beat that endorphin high. Although the physical benefits of training are wonderful and obvious, I have a true appreciation for how much it heals one's mind and soul.”

This brings Roger back into focus: “I know that is how my dad related to his training towards the end of his life. Although the cancer took its toll on him physically, it was through his weight training that he maintained some semblance of physical control. But more importantly it allowed him to channel his mental and spiritual strength to fight the most important battle of his life. He fought fiercely, gracefully and without regret until the very end. 

“I am so honored and blessed to be his daughter.” 

*  *  *

Roger became principal at three elementary schools, establishing himself as the respected and loved teacher/principal with muscles and a far out sense of humor. His practical jokes were legendary; a number of them were related at the celebration. They were elaborate and hilarious, often making fun of himself and putting his muscles to work in one way or another. And don’t forget that he gave the best hugs ever.

“Did you know that Mr. Wright can wiggle his boobies without moving the rest of his body?” asked one his students. Another wanted to know why Mr. Wright’s shirts were so small. “It isn’t that his shirts are small,” another teacher explained, “it’s just that his muscles are big.”

As noted earlier, Roger had a beautiful voice. He loved to sing for Regina and occasionally in public. He sang the National Anthem, a cappella, in front of 17,000 rabid Lobo basketball fans in the famous UNM Pit, twice. Regina remembers being anxious and saying to him, “What if you forget the words, what if you get pitchy?” Roger just laughed and consoled her and all her worst fears. “Regina, it’s only a minute and 18 seconds out of my life. I can forget the words, I can get pitchy, I can forget the words AND get pitchy, or I can nail it.” He nailed it, of course, both times.

That was the philosophy that guided his life. He was absolutely fearless and it enabled him to experience life fully everyday. He had no regrets, he just kept moving forward. He just didn’t know any better.

The celebration ended with a recording of Roger singing his own rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You. It was beyond wonderful. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. (If there was we were crying too much to see them.) 

That was Roger Wright. His was a life to cherish, remember, and learn from.

We’ll never forget you, Roger.

*  *  *

In a moving postscript, Regina wrote to us, “I know he is up there watching over you and whenever you need a ‘spot he will be there.” Attached was a strand of Roger’s gigantic ball of string.

* *  *

"Keep Going, You Can Do It!"

Hello Mr. and Mrs. Bass,

I was just speaking with my husband about this wonderful PE teacher I had at Mark Twain Elementary in Albuquerque back in 1970-1971, I believe. I would just like to know if this is the same Mr. Wright that you wrote so beautifully about when he passed away in 2013. I would have been about 5th or 6th grade (11 or 12 yrs old). He had to be at the beginning of his teaching career. Do you possibly know if he might have taught at that school during that time period?

If so, I am very sorry to hear of his passing, but must tell you that I have never forgotten him. I was "the little chubby girl" in my class who never got picked for teams and wasn't the most coordinated child either. Mr. Wright actually got me to climb the rope that hung from the ceiling! He would put his hands on the rope and have me step on them. He'd then move them up a little higher and say, "keep going, you can do it!" His poor hands! I never made it to the top but got a little farther each time until he couldn't reach any higher. He was really someone special, and did the same thing for the little chubby boy in our class too. He was so kind and wanted us to try our best, that was all he asked. He was truly a wonderful man in my eyes when I needed someone to encourage and believe in me.

From what you had written, you were very close friends, and I am so sorry for your loss, and also for his family's loss. I have a feeling from all I read that this is the same man or my memories of him wouldn't have stayed with me all of these years.

Most sincerely,
Mary Ellen Pellegrino

Dear Mary Ellen,

Thank you for sharing your story. I am pretty sure you are referring to my dad, and Clarence & Carol's friend, Roger.

Actually, I know it's my dad because I remember climbing the rope with him, just as you had. He continued to spread that same kindness and encouragement with everyone he connected with until his last breath. I am honored and humbled to be his daughter. I strive every day to make him proud and continue his legacy by treating people the way he did. The world is definitely a better place because of him. Although he is not physically with us anymore, I think of him every day and it's stories like yours that allow him to live on within each of us.

Again, thank you for reaching out. You put a huge smile on my face.

Anndee Wright Brown

Dear Mary Ellen,

Thank you for taking the time to reach out to friends and family in memory of Roger. Roger started his career at Mark Twain in January of 1969. He loved to teach and even as a principal he wondered back into the class room to teach a class and give an overworked teacher a break. He could not stay away! We all need those great memories from childhood. Thank you for your kindness, for sharing and I know Roger is smiling. I know he's proud to have played a part in shaping the life of such a positive, giving person. Again I thank you. It means so much.

Regina Wright
Carol and Clarence......love to you!!


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