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Sunday, April 14, 2024

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IN MEMORIAM: Jerome Wright, TSD Deputy Editor and beloved journalist, dead at 74

I was expecting to be interviewed Tuesday by veteran journalist Jerome Wright when I got a telephone call about him. Specifically, the Tri-State Defender’s deputy editor had died. He was 74.

The caller was Wright’s wife, Gwendolyn. Her husband had died while on the treadmill the night before.

TSD Editor Emeritus Karanja A. Ajanaku

I gasped and lost my grip for a moment, tears flowing beyond my control. “J-Rome” – as I called him – had become a professional colleague in mid-1977 and a dear friend over time. The scheduled interview was for a story about my transition out of the dual roles of TSD associate publisher and executive editor, the latter of which I held for 16.5 years before ending my tenure on December 31, 2023. 

As a professional journalist, “J-Rome” had a knack for helping people find a trust level from which they felt comfortable sharing aspects of their lives. I’d seen him do it for years.

Long before we became colleagues at TSD, we had been trailblazers, along with Otis L. Sanford, at The Commercial Appeal (CA), Memphis’ longstanding daily newspaper. As the “Three Amigos,” we challenged stereotypes with a combination of presence, professionalism and skills as we covered law enforcement (Wright), the federal beat (Sanford) and city hall (me).

J-Rome was the oldest member of our trio. He’d worked as a copy clerk for the CA and earned a journalism degree from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) in 1972. He drove a cool red Corvette, dressed impeccably, worked hard, enjoyed card and board games (spades, bid whist, backgammon) and was so approachable.

Over the years, our careers, life choices and happenstances took us in varying directions. Yet the friendship and respect/bond remained intact. At the funeral for my father in Natchitoches, La. (in 2002), I looked up and there was J-Rome and Gwen, who had made the six-hour-plus drive unannounced to me.

On Christmas night 2003, I signed off (as night news editor) on the next day’s edition of the CA. Four and a half years later (and after a run as a small-business owner), I walked into the Downtown offices of The Tri-State Defender as executive editor.

The challenges – internal and external – were immense. At one point, the newspaper was sold to local ownership. And then, tragically in 2018, Bernal E. Smith II, who engineered the sale, died suddenly at 45.

As I reviewed the TSD situation, it was clear that I needed high-level editing help and from someone who could appreciate the need and the challenges. I thought of my friend and colleague, “J-Rome” Wright, who had retired as the Editorial Page Editor at the CA after – by self-description – an association of “45 years, 7 months and 16 days.” 

We met at the Mahogany Memphis Restaurant, where I made the pitch for him to join me at the TSD. We talked our way to a multi-year agreement that withstood the ravages of the pandemic and the gyrations that are forcing the journalism industry to reinvent/repackage itself on the fly.

When the Tennessee Press Association contests for 2021 and 2022 yielded first-place finishes for the TSD in the areas of Coronavirus News Coverage and Coronavirus Features, features written and edited by J-Rome helped anchor TSD’s entries. Once again, he had demonstrated his knack for helping people find a trust level from which they felt comfortable sharing aspects of their lives.

Recently, I was asked about my fondest memory while at the TSD. My answer: “My fondest memory is actually a stream of memories of the people that I came to know or know better through my association with the TSD.”

Among such memories are those of my dear friend and colleague, “J-Rome” Wright.

Services are pending.

He also leaves three daughters, Meredith Davidson of Scarsdale, New York, Elizabeth Wright of Nashville, and Victoria Wright of Los Angeles; a stepson, Albert Glenn of Huntsville, Alabama; two sisters, Rosalind Holman of York, Pennsylvania, and Paula Dandridge of Nashville; a brother, Raymond Scott Dandridge of Nashville; and a granddaughter, Beatrice Davidson of Scarsdale, New York. He also leaves his former wife, Cecelia Payne Wright of Memphis.

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