22 Aug 2014
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Wright Preserves Southampton's History, One Interview at a Time

Rogers Memorial Library director of adult programming revives oral history tradition.

Wright Preserves Southampton's History, One Interview at a Time

Of all the lectures, presentations, classes, performances and other programs she plans, it’s the oral histories that interest Director of Adult Programming Penny Wright the most.

Wright initiated the library’s ongoing series of discussions with Southampton elders, to share their stories and preserve their perspectives on local and world history as they lived it. But Wright herself has an interesting personal and family history that is also telling of life in Southampton as it used to be.

She joined the library in 1994, when it was on Jobs Lane in a building now owned and occupied by the . She worked part time in the children’s room. When the library became interested in hosting public programs, the first thing that came to her mind was oral history.

“We had so many people in town who were in their 80s and had led interesting lives,” she said during a recent interview at her office at Cooper Hall, next to the library on Coopers Farm Road. The very first program included Shinnecock Indians.

Wright said she has conducted 200 interviews, some public, some one-on-one, all of which are available to listen to or watch in the Long Island section of the library’s reference area. Topics range from the Great Hurricane of 1938 and Surfing in Southampton in the ’60s to Prohibition and World War II. Two of Wright’s interviews with World War II veterans are archived at the Library of Congress.

Getting subjects to agree to be interviewed often takes some convincing, but everyone has been happy they did it afterward, Wright said.

“It comes off as an informal conversation,” she said, pointing out that the interviewees don’t use notes.

Wright said the interviews are heartwarming and she hopes they will be important to people interested in looking back on the 20th century — and even the 19th century.

Cyrus Jagger was 104 years old when Wright interviewed him in 1994. “He could still remember poems he had been required to learn at the Windmill Lane Elementary School,” she said. “His earliest memories were the soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War.”

“Eighty percent of the people who I have interviewed for these programs are no longer alive,” Wright said, “but we have provided their families with transcriptions of all of these interviews.”

The library’s adult programming department put on 850 programs in 2010, with more than 10,000 attendees, from bridge and yoga to book groups and bus trips. Wright now conducts two oral history programs a year.

She said Rogers is a wonderful working environment and there is a great programming staff. “It’s a great community to do this kind of work in,” she added, noting that a variety of people with knowledge in many fields live in Southampton.

Wright majored in French literature at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. She lived in Cambridge, Maine, for a time before moving back to Southampton in 1976 and working for the Parrish Art Museum as assistant curator and registrar. She earned her master's at Southampton College and a certificate in environmental studies. She has also worked as a substitute teacher and taught French classes for adults in Westhampton.

Wright’s father, Dr. Kenneth Wright, originally from the Bronx, was a World War II surgeon, and later worked at . “He was what you would consider an old-fashioned doctor who made house calls,” she said. “As kids we used to love to hop in his car and go on house calls with him.” Many patients would pay him in preserves and food because they did not have much money, she recalled. “He had a big heart.”

Her mother, Dorothy Ellis Wright, was a pianist from a small town in Georgia.

Wright’s parents met during World War II; her mother was working for the Red Cross, and they were assigned to the same hospital unit in Paris after the city was liberated.

Her family moved to Water Mill when she was 4 months old, then to North Main Street in Southampton Village when she was 1 year old.

“It was a big house, but not filled with expensive things at all,” she said. In the backyard, they kept a 12-man army tent up all summer. “Very often we spent nights in the tent basically as an excuse to stay up all night,” she said. Wright was one of six children, including a twin sister, Elizabeth.

She grew up around music; there were two pianos in the living room. When she had kids of her own, she took them to many music events. “I was a folk music lover, and I learned the play the guitar a long while ago,” she said.

Wright is also started a kids chorus, EarthSong, which raises money for preserving rain forests. The chorus grew to a peak of 96 members. She was in church choirs herself and the Choral Society of the Hamptons.

Since she doesn’t watch television, she is an avid reader of both books and newspapers. “It’s a way to feel connected with what’s happening in the world and maybe bring some of it here,” she said. Additionally, she is a yoga student and recreational photographer.

She and her husband, Wayne Grothe, love to cook, and she has two children, Alex Reese, 25, and Hope Reese, 27.

Wright now lives on Henry Street — “The best street in the village.” Her first house was on Howell Street, which she bought in 1978, but she said she always admired the Henry Street house on her daily walks and was lucky enough to be able to buy it 10 years ago. In between, she lived in Shinnecock Hills.

She continues her daily walks — on the beach in the summer and through the village in the winter — and every night, religiously, she visits the beach, “just to go down to the water, just to see the sunset, just to be at the beach.”

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