Her Life Speaks

Remembering Suzanne Werner Wright ’98 CCE,
Trustee Emerita

It’s the way so many stories about Suzanne Werner Wright ’98 begin: Her grandson was born an engaged and cheerful baby. But soon after he turned 2, he began to withdraw, developed extreme anxiety, and screamed for hours. His verbal skills and ability to interact with other children soon disappeared. Doctors assumed he was going through a phase, but he wasn’t. He had autism.

But what was autism? It was 2004, and everyone Wright turned to, from pediatricians to well-educated friends, either hadn’t heard of autism or didn’t know what to do about it. “We discovered how little there was out there about autism,” Wright said in a 2014 interview. “What steps to take, what doctors to see, what therapies to try. This lack of information was unacceptable.”

Enter Autism Speaks. In 2005, Wright and her husband Bob (then president and CEO of NBC) started the national foundation dedicated to raising public awareness and research funds for the condition. Wright would devote the rest of her life to ensuring that families never experienced the same lack of information that devastated hers. In 2008, Wright and her husband were named to the TIME 100 list of most influential people in the Heroes and Pioneers category for their commitment to autism advocacy around the globe. Reading any of Wright’s obituaries—they ran in every major news publication in the United States—it’s easy to see why. Wright was indefatigable in fighting for people to see “the potential in each child and adult on the vast autism spectrum.” She testified on Capitol Hill and spoke at the Vatican. She organized fundraising walks nationwide. She even wrote personal letters of support to individuals and families.

But there’s another Suzanne Wright story that doesn’t get told as often: the story of returning to school when she was in her 40s and quietly working hard to earn her degree. Wright’s education had been put on hold decades earlier when she married Bob, as she raised their three children and supported their family. In 1992, three years after Bob became the head of NBC, Wright became a continuing education student at Sarah Lawrence. “I would go to events at the Waldorf [Astoria] and have to come home and do my papers,” she said.

It was a decision that informed everything in her life that came after. Speeches in front of the United Nations General Assembly were nothing compared with “having to stand up and remember lines in a scene opposite 19-year-old kids,” she said. Her devotion to the College reflected the same tenacious approach she would later bring to Autism Speaks. After graduating, she began serving on the Board of Trustees, a position she held until 2006. And in 2000, Bob gave her the birthday present to end all birthday presents: a $1 million gift that funded renovations to the former Studio Theatre in Sarah Lawrence’s Performing Arts Center, now called the Suzanne Werner Wright Theatre.

In the spring 2004 issue of this magazine, Wright reflected: “My Sarah Lawrence education was more than I had ever expected. Each course and each professor taught me not only the subjects but also to believe in myself.” It would prove to be a lesson that she paid forward in every way.

“Suzanne’s profound and lasting impact on Sarah Lawrence is threaded throughout the fabric of this College,” says President Karen Lawrence. “She loved Sarah Lawrence, and we honor her memory.”