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Kathy Wright poses for a photo outside her home Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in north Cheyenne. Wright was awarded the Making Democracy Work Award by the League of Women Voters of Wyoming for her longstanding work with Wyoming Girls State. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Retired Brigadier General Kathy Wright has devoted her life to promoting the ideals of a democratic society, as both the first female general officer to serve in the Wyoming Army National Guard and a longtime organizer for Wyoming Girls State.

Wright’s lifetime of service to the people of Wyoming earned her the League of Women Voters of Wyoming’s 2019 Making Democracy Work Award, which the league presented to her during a virtual ceremony Thursday evening – on Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day.

Although the LWV had planned to honor Wright at a big in-person ceremony earlier this year, it, like so many other events, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Her leadership – that ability to influence – and the timing of her natural career progression placed her front and center to pave the way to achieve a number of female firsts in the organization,” said Gayle Baugh, retired command sergeant major for the Army Guard, who first met Wright in the mid-1980s. “Very noticeable to me was her professional competence to change and improve the organization’s culture. To help leaders in our ranks find value in our rich diversity.”

The LWV does not award the honor annually – the last award was presented in 2017 – but rather when it identifies a Wyoming resident who has “safeguarded democracy in our community state and nation,” said Rosalind Schliske, secretary of the Cheyenne League of Women Voters.

Schliske, who first met Wright decades ago while they were both serving in the Army Guard, nominated her for the award in 2019.

“All of her life, Wright has been literally safeguarding democracy,” Schliske told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Wednesday. “Kathy knows that’s not a one-time thing. You’ve got to make sure people understand and appreciate democracy when they’re starting out as young people.”

Wright earned a degree in music from the University of Wyoming and taught in public schools in the state for several years while playing piccolo in the Army Guard’s band before joining the service full-time.

“Soldier might be her profession, but teacher is her passion,” said Schliske, who described Wright as “bubbly, outgoing, intense and very, very kind.”

“She’s been training people all her life,” Schliske said of Wright. “She comes to teaching and working with people naturally. Kathy wants people to learn.”

Wright, who said her parents instilled in her a strong sense of patriotism while she was growing up in Guernsey, was the first woman to complete the non-commissioned officers academy in the Army Guard. The discipline and learning experiences the service provided initially attracted Wright to the Army Guard.

“When you are a (woman) doing something like that, sometimes you stick out more. It can either be an advantage or a disadvantage,” she said, reflecting on the barriers she broke in the 1970s. Back then, there were no sleeping quarters or bathrooms for women on site, which changed soon after Wright joined the ranks.

“If you do well, it can be to your advantage. Sometimes they expect more, or they might expect less because you’re a female,” she said, crediting her late husband Mike with offering the support and encouragement she needed to advance in her career. “You always want to be sure you perform as well as your peers or better. Women work pretty hard when they’re in a male environment.”

Wright, who served for a total of 40 years in the Army Guard, was also the first woman promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.

“It didn’t always feel like I got promoted at the same time as my male peers. I felt like I had to do a little more and work a little harder,” Wright said. Looking back over her decades of service, she said she’s most proud of setting an example of caring for others. “You need to be compassionate, but you also need to set standards by being fair and just.”

Wright’s service took her all over the world, including to countries without the established democratic form of government Americans are accustomed to.

Her experiences inspired her to become active with Wyoming Girls State, which is a long-running program supported by the American Legion Auxiliary designed to give high school-aged young women the opportunity to participate in mock local and state-level lawmaking processes for one week during the summer.

Among her many other achievements, Wright’s involvement in Girls State impressed the LWV and majorly factored into their decision to honor her for “making democracy work.”

Wright, who serves as the legislative coordinator for the program and previously served as director, said she relishes the chance to expose young women in Wyoming to the limitless possibilities of what they can achieve.

“Girls come to us from all different backgrounds, but it’s a very nurturing environment,” she said, noting that Girls State participants have the opportunity to meet the state’s highest-ranking public officials through the process. “When they hear about how these people got involved with public service, it shows them that they can do that, too. Even if getting involved is only making sure you always vote.”

Although she is now retired from the Army Guard, Wright, who holds several volunteer offices including service as a member of the Wyoming Board of Parole, says she’s not ready to cease her commitment to advancing democracy in her community.

“I don’t let grass grow under my feet.”

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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