In 1964 the average cost of a new house was $13,050. The average income per year was $6,000. A new car cost about $3,500 and a gallon of gas was $0.30. The world was also changing. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law and race riots ensued in several U.S. states. That same year, the 24th Amendment was enacted to prohibit poll taxes and other antics that kept certain people from voting. As for the nation’s health, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that smoking may lead to lung cancer.
Something else happened in 1964. A baby boy was born who would grow to beat the odds and emerge as a leader. Walter Wright was raised in the Kansas City, Mo. area and now resides in Lexington with his wife. Moving from the city to a small, rural town was an easy transition. The calm, peace and the stillness of rural life was a welcomed change for a person who has spent most of his life serving and motivating others.
All Things Work for Good
Even as a child, Wright had a mature sense of purpose. He knew where his strength lay and often leveraged his faith to confront challenges. God is what fueled his spirit and basketball is where he honed talents that would ultimately help him succeed off the court. “Most kids wanted toys for Christmas,” he said. “All I wanted as a kid was a chance to go to a prestigious basketball camp sponsored by the NBA.” Too expensive, Wright was unable to go. But little did he know that one day this big disappointment would manifest into something even bigger.
Determined, Wright taught himself how to finesse on the basketball court. He practiced drills, jump shots, three-pointers, how to post high and low, and even finagled his way on the court to shoot hoops against the older kids. During the ‘70s, massive strikes in the Kansas City School District left students at home instead of in the classroom. Wright’s parents were among many others who pulled their kids out of the District and into private, Catholic schools. Wright found himself right at home. He served as an altar boy at what was then St. Augustine School.
A Walk by Faith…
Faith and basketball carried him as he grew older. His plan to attend a seminary for boys ended when the school closed. A star athlete, Wright attended Bishop Hogan High School in Kansas City. The Catholic school served as a pipeline for students graduating from nearby parochial schools and Catholic parishes.
After high school, he played Mules football as a quarterback at Central Missouri State University (CMSU, now University of Central Missouri) in Warrensburg, Mo. But he left CMSU midstream to successfully attempt a walk-on with a Division One basketball team -- Kansas State University’s Wildcat basketball team. Ask him what gave him the courage to walk-on a prestigious basketball team that craftily selects its players, and Wright’s answer is simple: “It was a faith move.”
On any given day, Wright was at the community rec center in Manhattan, Kan., playing ball even after a long practice with the Wildcats. Because of his presence and accessibility at the rec center, the Manhattan community got to know him and got behind him. At home games, in what was then Ahearn Stadium, the crowd shouted Wright’s name as he emerged on the court. He became known as the crowd’s favorite, a title affectionately bestowed by former K-State president, Jon Wefald.
As the 1987-88 season came to a head, the Big Eight Men’s Conference Basketball Tournament pitted the Wildcats against its rival, the University of Kansas Jayhawks. The Wildcats had beaten the Jayhawks several times before that season. “We played at the Detroit Silverdome,” Wright said. “The win slipped through our fingers. It was a game we should have won…a devastating loss.” The K-State Wildcats didn’t advance to the Final Four Championship played in Kansas City that year, but Wright looked ahead to what was next.
“For I Know the Plans I have for You”
After graduating from Kansas State with a business management degree, Wright eventually opened his own insurance brokerage firm. However, community service became Wright’s primary focus. Remember the basketball camp he didn’t get to attend? That inspired him to start free basketball camps for Kansas City youth, many of whom were at-risk. The camps went beyond teaching basketball and underscored how to live honorably off the court. Seeing a huge need to reach at-risk youths early, he launched Walter Wright Foundation for Children, a nonprofit offering free basketball camps, tutoring and mentoring programs, college preparatory classes, trips to coveted area attractions like Royals games, and many other activities.
Repeatedly, perceived setbacks turned into triumphs. Not getting to attend the basketball camp fueled Wright’s motivation for helping urban youths to gain access to free basketball camps. Playing on K-State’s basketball team as a walk-on ultimately propelled Wright’s profile throughout the Manhattan community, because he made himself accessible. This led to years of community service after college and later included creating a political action committee, during his bid for U.S. Congress, that was instrumental in helping the Kansas City School District embrace charter schools.
Looking back, Wright realizes virtually everything came full circle – including the seminary that closed when he was transitioning into high school. Wright’s faith led him to pastor a church in Kansas City, The Rock of Our Salvation. But this wasn’t just any church. Its congregation at 9th and Forest was different. It welcomed the homeless, substance users, sex workers and people who had recently exited the penal system – people that some church folk don’t want to sit near on Sunday.
…Not by Sight
Running a benevolent ministry wasn’t easy. But Wright will tell you his compensation came by way of the lives that were transformed. “I’ve witnessed men who did hard time in prison break down on the church steps and cry,” he said. “Through Christ, I was able to minister to them. Some of them returned home to their families, found jobs and became productive members of society. Through this ministry, we were able to not only bring many people to Christ, but fed and clothe individuals and families, connected them with resources that provided food, shelter and work. Some even went on to open their own businesses.
From Catholic altar boy to a K-State crowd favorite, and now as a semi-retired entrepreneur, Wright will tell you there’s not much he would change. “Everything isn’t always going to line up,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to make faith moves and go after what’s in your heart. Starting a business isn’t easy. It ebbs and flows and you can’t always see what’s down the road. But if it’s in your heart, move by faith and go for it. Remember, we operate in God’s economy – not Man’s. Sometimes, we give people and things too much power. It [all] belongs to Him. It’s about having faith as small as a mustard seed.”
As for those free basketball camps, don’t be surprised if you see one popping up in a town near you. Wright and his wife have resided in Lexington for nearly 15 years. The two entrepreneurs have three adult children and two grandchildren.