The inspiring legacy of the late Suzanne Wright.
Suzanne Wright was nothing less than a force of nature. When confronted with her grandson Christian’s diagnosis of autism, the rest of Suzanne’s life was set in motion. She would forever change the awareness and dialogue surrounding this mysterious neurodevelopmental disorder. Guided by her leadership and vision, and in collaboration with her husband, Bob, Suzanne’s autism advocacy organization, Autism Speaks, has emerged as the global leader in autism research. The organization has become a fund-raising phenomenon, generating over $1 billion toward finding a cure.
Although Bob Wright officially served as the chairman and CEO of Autism Speaks, he considered his wife its “chief passion officer.” After all, it was Suzanne who helped create Autism Speaks’ blue puzzle piece logo. It was Suzanne who convinced the United Nations to establish World Autism Awareness Day, lighting up landmarks around the world in Autism Speaks’ trademark blue. In 2014, she even brought the campaign to the Vatican, where she and her husband convinced the Pope to hold a conference of more than six hundred autism experts from more than fifty countries. And yet no matter how far or wide she took her fight, whether from the floor of the United Nations to the domes of the papal city, Suzanne Wright never forgot where she came from.
Born in 1964, she was the daughter of a police lieutenant and homemaker living in the Bronx. While working at a department store at the age of sixteen, Suzanne was invited to a dance at The College of the Holy Cross. After hopping on a Greyhound bus from New York City to Worcester, Suzanne walked into the dance and met her future husband. “I fell in love with Bob immediately,” she remembered in a recently released biography, The Wright Stuff. “He was so smart, so kind, and had extraordinary integrity.”
The two dated for three years and then Bob asked Suzanne to marry him while at a family party in the basement of her parents’ home in Queens. “The next day Bob and I were at the church to set the wedding date,” she remembered. The young couple began their life together modestly, with Bob working as a waiter until he finished law school. Years later, after raising three children, and with Bob now at the helm of NBC, Suzanne decided she wanted to attend college. “I didn’t want anyone at NBC to know about it, so I used my maiden name,” she remembered. “I wanted to do it on my own.” It took her seven years, but with a little help from Bob proofreading her papers, Suzanne graduated from Sarah Lawrence College.
There was no reading between the lines, or scratching one’s head to understand what Suzanne meant when she said things. She was not ambiguous about anything. As Nantucket summer resident Gordon Gund remembers of first meeting Suzanne on Nantucket: “My wife Lulie and I were having a quiet dinner at DeMarco’s Restaurant in the mid-1980s by ourselves [when] suddenly, in her characteristically forthright way, Suzanne came over to our table, introduced herself and asked me if I was blind.” Struck by her candor, Gund told her that he had lost his eyesight years earlier due to a retinal degenerative disease known as retinitis pigmentosa. Suzanne went on to explain that the husband of a friend of hers, Steve Barnett, was suffering from the early onset of the same disease, and asked if Gund would be willing to speak with him. “Over the years, we have witnessed how Suzanne, along with Bob, would go out of her way to help people who had a problem,” Gund said. “No grass grew under those feet. She was very direct and focused on helping people, rather than worrying about undue worry about sensitivities.
Despite being surrounded by the world’s corporate elite, often rubbing elbows with popes and presidents alike, Suzanne never lost her common touch. Around the halls of NBC, where her husband, Bob, served as CEO, Suzanne not only remembered employees’ names, but also their children’s names and their birthdays. “She knew at least 500-plus NBC people by name at any given time,” wrote friend and summer resident Maureen Orth in the Inquirer & Mirror. “Suzanne humanized NBC, then owned by GE, and made it seem like a team you were proud to belong to and wanted to give your all to.” Orth’s late husband, Tim Russert, worked at NBC for more than twenty years, and their family grew close with the Wrights over the years on Nantucket.
“I’ve always felt that you can tell the make of a person by how they treat children,” says Orth’s son, Luke Russert. “To Suzanne, any child was her child. What I will remember most is being five, eight, twelve and even thirty years old, and she taking a distinct interest in my life. The conversations morphed from how kindergarten was going, to how I approached my work life balance. The conversations were never forced, always genuine and always appreciated. I know she made a tremendous impact on tons of kids with her welcomed inquisitiveness — I consider myself fortunate to be one of them.”
Suzanne adored Nantucket and was a beloved fixture on the island for many years. She enjoyed scalloping in Madaket Harbor, hosting family and friends the likes of Johnny Carson at her home, and, of course, leading the Autism Walks annual parade every August from Jetties Beach. Wherever Suzanne went, her husband of forty-nine years was invariably by her side. “I have loved Suzanne my whole life,” Bob wrote in his biography. “She threw herself into everything with tireless vigor, determination, and humanity. They became her calling cards in redefining the role of a corporate wife, launching a global crusade for autism, and finding treatment for our grandson, Christian… Suzanne was the emotional passionate heart and soul of everything she touched.”
In both a cruel and fortuitous twist of fate, autism some- how found Suzanne Wright. Few people could have become a more energetic, passionate and effective champion of awareness around this condition than Suzanne Wright. She lived a life larger than her own and may ultimately change the course of the lives of many others to come.