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William E. Wright: In Memoriam

Bill Wright in 1977: the founding year of the Center for Austrian Studies (photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Center for Austrian Studies)

Historian 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.

As a Fulbright student grantee, he experienced the last year of the Allied occupation of Austria and the quadripartite division of Vienna. On May 15, 1955, he was in the crowd that assembled at the Belvedere Palace, where the Austrian State Treaty was to be signed. He witnessed Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold Figl’s appearance on the balcony of the palace with the other signatories of the document, which Figl demonstrably held up to show to the assembled below and proclaimed: Österreich ist frei! Bill Wright returned to Vienna as a young associate professor and a Fulbright research scholar for the 1962-63 academic year, where he did extensive archival research for a historical biography of Emperor Joseph II.

If one looks back on many the different talents of Bill Wright and the stations of his long and illustrious 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 enquiry, 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.

For more about William E. Wright, please read his obituary by Fulbright Austria Executive Director Lonnie R. Johnson, from which this text is excerpted.

Bill Wright as applicant for a Fulbright award in 1953
Bill Wright, founding Director of the Center for Austrian Studies (1977-88) with some of his successors: Fulbright alum Prof. David Good (1989-1996), Fulbright-Hayes alum Prof. Gary Cohen (2001-2010), Prof. Gerhard Weiss (1999-2001) (l. to. r.)