A standing-room-only crowd spilled into the hallway of Old Main on the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus Wednesday during the dedication of the William "Pope" Wright Jr. Student Center.
"Oh, happy day," said Carl Crawford, a UWS alumnus. "Jim Dan Hill., Ole Haugsrud, and now, Pope Wright added to the list of names that will be forever remembered at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and memorialized by this space on campus."
The renaming of the former Multicultural Center comes with a responsibility to Wright.
"His work was so important, so impactful and so meaningful that it has to outlive him," Superior Mayor Jim Paine said. "We can't allow it to pass with him. We have to pick up the work that he was doing."
Wright was an art professor for 44 years, led the Multicultural Center, was both Black Student Union and Indian Student adviser, served as the director of the UWS Minority Affairs Office and opened his arms to the community.
"He really was at the forefront of everything that was good for this place and for this community and for the students and this college," said Ivy Vainio, retired student services coordinator for the Multicultural Center.
Those who knew him recalled his quiet strength, his dignity, his thoughtfulness.
"He brought out the best in everyone who had contact with him," Chancellor Renee Wachter said.
When he began teaching at UWS in 1971, Wright was the first African-American professor at the university. For Vanio, he made a lasting impression from day one. She was scanning the crowd as she and other new staff were being introduced in 1997.
"I was looking around and all I could see was a sea of sameness," she said. "And then I just kind of looked and there he was, there was Pope. He saw me; I saw him. He gave me a smile and I knew it was going to be OK."
"Pope made students, and me, belong in a world where no one else could," Vainio said.
He was the reason alumnus Kym Young, a McNair Scholar, chose UWS instead of other local universities.
"I walked into the art department. Pope said 'Hi, how you doing? Are you going here?' and I said 'Yep,'" said Young with the Superior African Heritage Community. "It wasn't because he was a black man, but because he came up and said 'hello.' Pope had a 'hello' for everybody."
When UWS Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Jerel Benton came to campus in 2017, people around him spoke about Wright, who died in 2015, as if he was still teaching.
"I thought Pope was still around. I wanted to meet this individual," Benton said. "That's the true definition of a legacy."
The dedication of the renovated center was also a tribute to Wright's wife, Sandra, a longtime educator at Cooper Elementary School.
"Sandra, you are very special to me," said Chip Beal, former UWS Multicultural Affairs director. "You and Pope were a phenomenal team. What Pope did, you were right there with him. What Pope did at this school, you were right behind him. I want to thank you for that."
The crowd responded with a wave of applause.
"The Wrights have left fingerprints on so many of our lives," said Crawford, a human rights officer in Duluth. "For me, it was an adviser, a neighbor, a beacon of safety. There was comfort for a young, black man so far away from home. No matter what, I knew when I saw the Wrights, it was going to be all right."
When Beal came to UWS, he found Wright to be the diversity historian of the campus.
"He told me things that happened 20 years before I got here and he got me up to date about how far UW-Superior had come - the ups, the downs, the progress, the back steps," Beal said. "He basically taught me that diversity, even though this was basically a white institution and still is, at the same time he taught me that diversity was alive and well here."
The university allocated up to $100,000 to renovate the center that bears Wright's name. Gone were the heavy green drapes; roomy study spaces were available and the walls were peppered with art.
"This center has been home to a lot of us in this community," Young said. "This is our space. This is a space for people of color."
The crowd was there to remember Wright, to support his family and to celebrate diversity.
"The Pope Wright that I know would be saying 'Why are you making such a fuss?'" Crawford said. "Well, it's because you earned it."
Visit youtube.com/watch?v=-7OUUVvuocw to watch a video on Pope Wright, "Why I Teach."