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Retired Judge Wright is Person of the Year

December 31, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- One path in life might have led Frederick C. Wright III to a lucrative career at the top rung of a law practice.

Another might have put him in a high-ranking government position; the question was how high.

Wright, a Hagerstown native, picked a third course -- one that combined elements of the first two, but which, importantly, kept him in the community where he grew up and raised a family with his wife, Caroline.

He became a judge.

Through District Court and Circuit Court, Wright has overseen justice in Washington County for nearly four decades -- longer than any judge in Maryland's recent history.

Only mandatory retirement, at age 70, forced him to stop presiding full time.

For his 37 years of thoughtfully applying the rule of law, his local administration of a court system, his sustained devotion to his home county and his focus, above all, on his family, Wright has been named The Herald-Mail's 2008 Person of the Year.

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"There's a lot about my father that our community does not know, particularly because my father is a soft-spoken, private man who does not seek accolades," F. Christian Wright IV wrote in nominating his father. "As his son and best friend I think we should recognize his many years of service to our community."

Political opportunities

Frederick Christian Wright III bypassed conventional wisdom.

He grew up in a family of Republicans; he registered as a Democrat.

His family business was insurance; he went into law.

Pursuing the bench at age 32 became one of his most monumental decisions.

Wright said judgeships at the time were for established lawyers, age 50 or older, in the "afternoon or evening" of a legal career.

However, an unusual opportunity came his way, and he took it.

The chance arose while he was serving as one of Washington County's four state delegates in Annapolis.

When he was 27, Wright was appointed to a vacant seat. Several months later, he held onto the seat in an election.

Wright said he was the youngest member of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis and chaired a subcommittee that worked to create a lower-court system.

Circuit courts were constitutionally established and required. But, at the time, lower courts were a hodgepodge of justice operating in police stations and fire halls, varying from community to community.

Wright said his subcommittee formed district courts, so procedure and jurisprudence would be uniform.

It was 1971. Wright had won a second four-year term as a delegate the previous year.

He was part of the Democratic leadership, earning the position of speaker pro tem, who presided if the speaker was absent. Wright was the delegate chosen to nominate Marvin Mandel for governor in 1969 after Spiro Agnew resigned to become U.S. vice president.

Wright said he easily could have stuck with politics, joining others he has known along the way.

Paul Sarbanes, who was on the House Judiciary Committee with Wright, went on to serve 30 years as a U.S. senator, the longest tenure in Maryland's history.

One of Wright's roommates at the University of Virginia Law School was Christopher S. "Kit" Bond, a current U.S. senator who became Missouri's youngest governor at age 33.

A student two years ahead of Wright at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., also has had a long Senate career -- more than 20 years representing Arizona. That student, John McCain, was better known in recent months as the Republican nominee for president.

Wright said a group once asked him to run for Congress against Goodloe Byron, but he declined. He wasn't interested in a loftier title.

"My goal when I ran the first time (for delegate) was to see how laws are made and participate in the lawmaking process," he said.

Drawn to the bench

Wright also could have gone into insurance, the family business. His grandfather, Frederick Wright Sr., was president of the Strole-Wright Insurance Agency in Hagerstown. His father was president of Wright-Gardner Insurance Co., a later incarnation of the company.

The career tradition carried to a fourth generation -- F. Christian Wright IV is executive vice president of Wright-Gardner -- but it skipped Frederick C. Wright III, who said his father let him choose his own way.

As a state delegate with increasing legislative and family responsibilities, Wright also was a partner in the Hagerstown law firm McCauley, Cooey, Berkson & Wright.

Caroline Wright, a Middletown, Md., native, said the life of a state politician was fine, but when her husband thought about planting roots in the community they knew, there wasn't much of a choice.

In July 1971, when the District Court system began, the couple's daughter was almost 4 years old and their son was 15 months old.

"I had been reaching a point that someday I'd like to be a judge," Wright said of his decision to change paths. "How do I want to use all of my experiences and my education ... not only intellectual, but spiritual character qualities that perhaps had been instilled by family and educators.

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