Westminster loses revered professor
Doug Wright » Philosopher of the arts-engaged students, faced cancer without insurance.
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 12/07/2009 07:10:37 AM MST
By Brian Maffly
Doug Wright, a Westminster College philosophy professor revered for his ability to show students and colleagues the artistic wonder of everyday life, has succumbed to cancer.
Many Westminster students claimed Wright as an important mentor in their lives. Jennifer Niedfeldt, an honors student from Salt Lake City, took four of Wright's courses, including his famous "Meaning and Movement in the Arts."
"He used humor to connect with other people. He was the least judgmental person you would ever meet. Even if he didn't know you, he had this love of you and what you could be," said Niedfeldt, who graduated in May with a degree in environmental studies. "He would find that small, vulnerable part of a person and make them feel really safe."
Wright, who died last week, opened his office door and his life to students, handing out his personal contact information and inviting them to various gatherings. After Wright fell ill, he taught Niedfeldt archery in exchange for her help with a Web site.
Wright was 57 when he died Sunday at his Salt Lake City home. He leaves no family, although friends from around the country congregated around his bedside and staged an informal wake in a Sugar House bar on Friday.
"He traveled his own road of self-discovery that had him doing everything from driving a fork lift, to reading to blind people, working on a radio station, hospice work. All of these were brief sojourns," said his life-long friend Paul Babin, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker. Babin produced a documentary last summer, titled "The Place Beneath," about his friend's illness and gifts as a teacher.
"There are so many moments in the last couple days where I want to hear that story again that he was so good at telling, to get his take on something," Babin said. "We would have a wonderfully entertaining time. I'm going to miss that guy a lot."
Wright earned a bachelor's at Cal State Fullerton and a master's at the University of Utah before commencing his career as an adjunct. He taught that anything you can touch can be an art medium.
"He had amazing gifts for drawing out from kids what they were interested in and thinking about mundane things," said friend Jeff Nichols, a Westminster professor of history. "He liked to go late at night and eat at the Village Inn and talk to people and listen to conversations and write poetry about it."
Wright worked full-time for much of his 15-year tenure at Westminster, teaching various honors courses examining philosophy in art and film. He founded a film studies program a few years ago, but administrators looked for someone with a doctorate to lead it.
"They went out to hire a full-time person and he was not considered eligible," Nichols said. As a result, Wright was reduced to part-time status and lost his health insurance. When he became ill, he could not qualify for Medicaid because he had assets worth $160,000, according to Babin's film. While cancer invaded his lungs, the treatment ate up his savings and the equity in his home, even though doctors waived some fees and friends stepped in with financial help.
"He was still working so hard to teach in the last few months," Niedfeldt said. "He had to rely on the goodness of other people instead of the protection someone so valuable deserves. That is not something someone should have to worry about when they are reaching the end."
And it was an end he faced with characteristic humor, even as he was undergoing chemo infusions every three weeks.
"I use this situation as a teaching tool. We joke a lot [in class]. I do a lot of crude, tasteless, hysterically funny s--- with my students about dying," he says in the film.
But it wasn't all jokes. In one scene in the film, he talks about his terminal illness as a learning process.
"The most powerful feeling is when I see students who are just remarkable people and have such profound principles and character that," he paused, tears welling up, "that it makes me realize that my life has been worthwhile."