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In memoriam: William E. Wright

Founding director for the Center for Austrian Studies
November 22, 2017

William E. Wright (1926 – 2017)

  • 1951 Earned BS in Business Administration at the University of Colorado, Boulder
  • 1954-1955 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Vienna
  • 1957 Earned PhD in history at the University of Colorado, Boulder
  • 1962-1973 Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota
  • 1973-1993 Professor of History at the University of Minnesota
  • 1982-1989 Founding Director for the Center for Austrian Studies at the University of Minnesota
  • 1982-1989 Editor of the Austrian History Yearbook 

Full C.V., memories or interviews can be found in the Center for Austrian Studies Historical Archive

Text by Lonnie R. Johnson, Executive Director, Fulbright Austria

William E. Wright—known to all of his friends and associates as Bill—was among that pioneering generation of Fulbrighters who participated in the earliest years of Austrian-American exchanges in the early 1950s. After graduating from high school in California in 1944, he enrolled in the U.S. army and starting in July 1945, served for two years as a non-commissioned intelligence officer with the U.S. Fourth Armored Division that participated in the U.S. occupation of Germany and Austria as a constabulary force.

After returning to the United States and completing a B.S. in Business Administration at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1951, he decided to do graduate work in history, completed his M.A. in 1953, and applied for a Fulbright award that brought him and his wife, Norma, to Vienna in 1954-55 for a year of archival research for his doctoral dissertation. As a Fulbright grantee, he experienced the last year of the Allied occupation of Austria and the quadripartite division of Vienna.

The happiest I ever saw him was at Cafe Landtmann in Vienna: it was his home away from home. If you needed to find Bill in the summer, he was at Landtmann. [...] Austrians, Americans, people from all the various regions of the Monarchy came to see him, and he relished the conversations about Central Europe - John C. Swanson University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Bill Wright returned to the University of Colorado to complete his dissertation in 1957 under the supervision of S. Harrison Thomson. He then was hired by the University of Minnesota as an instructor of history, and this appointment began his association with an institution that he served in a wide variety of different capacities [including establishing CAS and serving as its director from 1977 to 1988] until he became an emeritus professor 36 years later in 1993.
As an aspiring young scholar, Bill Wright had many talents and interests. He was an enthusiastic teacher of Habsburg and contemporary Austrian history at the graduate and undergraduate levels as well as German and Central European history and a regime of surveys of European history. The PhD candidates he supervised remember him for his unflagging support and encouragement, his meticulous professional rigor, and his good humor and personal warmth.

He also invested a great deal of energy into his teaching—for him it was always clear that teaching needed to be the first priority of a university.  He never did anything half-measure where teaching was concerned, and that was also reflected in how he supervised his PhD candidates - Jim Miller, FH JOANNEUM University of Applied Sciences, Austria

After his second stint as a Fulbrighter in Vienna, he devoted an increasing amount of his time and energy to university service and administration. However, Bill Wright’s interest in Austria did not wane during his professional excursion into international educational administration in the 1970s. His expertise in Austrian history and program development served the University of Minnesota well in 1976 when the Austrian government decided to seize the American Bicentennial as an occasion to thank the United States for the generous support Austria received after 1945. This initiative resulted in the idea of establishing a center for the promotion of Austrian Studies in the United States. Bill Wright was instrumental in putting the University of Minnesota’s proposal together, and it was short-listed in the competition with Yale and Stanford and then chosen on its own merits.

The creation and early development of the Minnesota Center for Austrian Studies would have been utterly impossible without the vision and drive of Bill Wright. Throughout his academic career Bill was tireless in his devotion to learning and teaching about Austrian history and society - Gary Cohen, University of Minnesota

Wright served as the inaugural director of the Center for Austrian Studies from 1977 through 1988—a position which allowed him to combine his scholarly interests with his organizational skills—and one can still see his signature in the architecture and the programming of the Center of Austrian Studies today. He positioned the Center as a multidisciplinary unit in the College of Liberal Arts and sought out an equally multidisciplinary faculty affiliation and advisory board. Bill Wright had a fine set of editorial skills which subsequently manifested themselves in his tenure as the editor of the Austrian History Yearbook from 1982 through 1989 as well as in three books of proceedings he edited that emanated from the nine international conferences he organized during his tenure as director.

In 1982, he also negotiated the acquisition of the personal library and papers of Robert A. Kann (Rutgers), the Austrian émigré historian recognized as the foremost expert of his generation on multinationalism in the Habsburg Empire, and Kann’s papers found a new home in Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Library. Wright was also responsible for the conception of an annual Kann Memorial Lecture Series that was inaugurated by Carl Schorske in 1984 and has become an institution in its own right.

It was Bill's style never to refuse any challenge thrusted upon him by administrators or colleagues.  He accepted all sorts of administrative responsibilities even at the expense of his own scholarship.  He was always ready and willing to help others.  In fact, he often anticipated needs his colleagues might face, and when he was in a position to lighten their burden, he did so joyously - Theofanis G. Stavrou, University of Minnesota

If one looks back on many the different talents of Bill Wright and the stations of his career, a coherent pattern emerges. His avid scholarly interest in Austria and his association with the University of Vienna were key formative influences. The intermediate phase of his career focused on university service and the advancement of international education and research agendas. Then he drew his scholarly interests, his administrative expertise, and his personal and professional networks together to found the Center of Austrian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Bill Wright had the professional distinction of having a big project and ultimately achieving what he set out to do. He established a center for the promotion of the study of Austria that would serve not only students and scholars from the University of Minnesota or the Midwest or the United States but also an international community. He created an interdisciplinary forum conceived to facilitate the kinds of encounters and conversations that inform scholarly inquiry, good research, and quality publications, and he provided his successors with an organization with sound foundations upon which they have continued to build. He was one of those giants upon whose shoulders we stand.