An Amazing Life
By John Norberg, columnist s

"Without a doubt the best professor I've had. The class is hard and moves at a fast pace, but Professor Wright is ALWAYS willing to help. He can explain whatever you need explained, about chemistry or life in general. Truly inspirational. Seriously, an entire lecture hall burst into applause after one of his lectures. He's that good."

A student wrote that comment about Dr. Steve Wright, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.

All of the online comments from his students burst with praise about how much he cared for them, helped them, encouraged them, and spent endless time with them when they needed extra help:

"Amazing professor! Explains every concept multiple ways. You do need to study for his tests, they are challenging. He goes above and beyond making sure everyone in class understands everything."

"Best professor ever! Genuinely adorable guy who teaches with pure passion. The tests are unfortunately hard but not if you study enough. He is willing to do everything he can if he thinks it will help his students. Lectures are fun and so are labs."

"Excellent professor! Concepts that I used to have trouble with, he clarified instantly. His teaching style is amazing and he never fails to make the class laugh."

"He makes going to class so much fun, and he's absolutely hilarious."

Wow. When was the last time you heard words like "amazing," "fun," and "hilarious" associated with a chemistry class?

At 60 years old after a lifetime dedicated to teaching, Steve Wright made plans to retire at the end of this semester. He was given the honor of being Grand Marshall for his final commencement ceremony coming up in just a few weeks. He had so much to live for.

Then, last Monday morning while swimming laps at the Stevens Point YMCA pool -- as he did every morning before work -- Steve died very suddenly, without any warning.

He was my cousin.

I was 6 years old when Steve was born. He was called Stevie then and he was one of our younger cousins. I can hardly remember a time in my life when he wasn't part of it.

Our parents were from the Greatest Generation. They grew up through the Great Depression, help fight World War II and helped built the U.S. into a strong nation filled with opportunities for our generation.

Most of all our parents taught us values, faith and the importance of family – and family included grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and cousins of cousins. Other than faith, we were taught that nothing else in our lives was more important than family.

All our families got together often. Not just at Christmas, Easter and the big holidays of the year. We got together throughout the year just to be together, to share love and – of course – to eat good food.

Those together times were play times for the cousins. I can see us on swings in a backyard, playing baseball or basketball, throwing footballs. I remember us playing ball in the basement of our house and not even getting in trouble for it.

Or maybe we just didn't get caught. I can't remember.

But I do remember kids playing all over the house and adults talking and laughing. And eating, of course.

In those days children didn't have sleepovers with friends like they do today. But we had sleepovers with our cousins and sometimes after a family gathering a whole houseful of us would be left behind to spend the night and the next day having fun together.

When all the cousins were seated around the breakfast table and we had boiled eggs for and didn't want them, we all gave them to Stevie. And he ate them.

We grew up together and then scattered after college, living in different states, pursuing different lives. But we have always kept in touch and treasured the times we could spend with one another. Our children have played together and I treasure knowing Steve's three adult daughters.

When my cousin Sandy called Monday morning and left a message, I knew there was bad news. I could tell by the tone of her voice. But I never thought it would involve Steve.

After talking to Sandy I sat at our dinning room table trying to understand what had just happened. I was in disbelief. I halfway expected the telephone to ring again and someone would tell me, "No – it was all a mistake. Steve is going to be fine."

You know the feeling.

But when the telephone rang again and again the calls were from more cousins and my sister and brother, all of us trying to deal with our shock and our grief and our need to be together.

Steve was passionate about teaching and he twice won the university teaching award. Reading what his students wrote, maybe he could have even taught chemistry to me. I looked at his doctoral thesis when he finished it many years ago. I only understood two words: "Steve" and "Wright."

He was a very smart man who loved his work and loved his wife even more. They were high school sweethearts. He loved his daughters and his grandchildren taking endless joy from being with them. He was a ballroom-dancer; he water-skied backward and forward. He was a cross-country skier – always going forward, as far as I know. He ran races. He was active in his United Methodist Church.

Today everyone in our family and everyone who knew him are asking the same question: why? There is no answer. Some things we will never understand.

Steve was a person who cared about so many things. He cared about the whole world and the environment. I'm sure he knew next Tuesday is Earth Day.

He believed Dr. Seuss when he wrote in The Lorax: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." Steve Wright cared a whole awful lot.

Maybe that's why I've been thinking this week about another quote attributed to Dr. Seuss: “Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.”

At this hard moment there really is only one thing that can make me smile.

Memories that happened with my cousin Steve.