When Jerome “Jerry” Wright graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in 1971, the celebratory tradition for graduates was to buy a new car.
Today, as the 71-year-old prepares to graduate in May with a doctorate in civil engineering almost 50 years after his first Mines’ graduation, he says he’s finally ready to partake in the festivities.
“I’m going to buy a new car and try to wear it out,” Wright said last week from his office on the Mines’ campus. “I want to spend some time, visit parts of the country I haven’t seen. I want to just get lost in the woods for a while, then come back and see what happens.”
For 23 years, Wright managed the city landfill. During that time, he created the city’s recycling and composting programs. He retired in 2010 but returned to the city fray just a year later when he was elected to the Rapid City Council, where he served as an alderman for Ward 3 until 2017. He continues to refuse to fade into the night quietly.
“I think the worst thing you can do at the age of 70 is sit around, drink coffee and complain about stuff,” he said. “Become part of the solution, not the problem.”
The solution Wright chased is shaped by his experience. His dissertation, which he hopes to defend in March, is titled “Conservation of irrigation water through the use of compost as a soil amendment.” The argument, in short, is that soil retains water more effectively when compost is added. The possibilities, particularly in agriculture, are seemingly endless. So too is the importance.
“There’s only so much water on the earth and how well we take care of it and use it determines our destiny,” Wright said.
The economic benefit to a city like Rapid City could be striking, too. Wright estimates around 50 percent of garbage at an average landfill is organic and could be composted, creating the potential for enormous cost-savings at landfills, where space is currency.
But Wright’s story is about more than science. It’s about chasing down a dream deferred.
Following Wright’s graduation in 1971, he expected to be shipped to Vietnam for a two- or three-year active duty tour after serving in the school’s ROTC program and becoming a commissioned officer. But at the time, the military was beginning to withdraw troops, leading to Wright’s early release. A year later, he was at Purdue University pursuing a master’s degree, which he received in 1974. A Ph.D. was in the front of his mind, but so too were other considerations.
“I also had a young family. I had bills to pay and obligations to take care of,” he said. “Going to grad school at that time was not practical so I put it off.”
In 2016, Wright’s interest in compost’s benefits saw him back at Mines asking professors if they knew of any students interested in the research.
“Finally it came down to one of the department guys who says ‘well, why don’t you do it?’” Wright recalls. “I said, ‘you’d really let me back in? He said, ‘in a minute.’”
So in August 2016, with a little help from the U.S. Government — Wright was recalled from his military retirement and served in Kuwait and Iraq in 2006 and 2007, allowing him to use the G.I. Bill to fund some of his studies — Wright hit the books anew.
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“Everything kind of just fell in line, so I started,” he said. “I walked in the door 50 years after I walked in as a freshman.”
Every good story has its challenges, and Wright’s is no different. For him, it was catching up with 50 years of new technology. His youthful peers and professors, he says, were his greatest asset in that struggle.
“I’m amazed at how quick and sharp these students are,” he said. “They’ve helped me tremendously. I’m not as sharp and quick as I used to be. Maybe I never was.”
Wright likes to think he’s returned the favor by offering his own unique perspective, like when a fellow student came to him distressed and overwhelmed about the innumerable tasks they had to do to graduate in time. Wright taught the student back-planning, where using the end point as the start, one plans all the little tasks and deadlines that must be accomplished beforehand. A couple weeks later, Wright says, the student told him he had “saved his life.” Wright smiled at the thought.
“It was a life skill I learned a long time ago,” he said. “As we get older, we have a barrel full of experiences that should be shared.”
Experience helped Wright with another big obstacle, too.
“We always have doubts about ourselves, don’t we?” he said. “I was 68 years old when I took my first exam and I had the same trepidation the night before and walking in that I had 50 years ago. On the other side of it, my experience was telling me that, you know, ‘you’ve been through worse, you can handle this.’”
When Wright walks across the podium in May to receive his degree, it will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another. He doesn’t know where his post-graduation path will lead but it won’t be back into the job market, he says. He trusts God has a plan for him even if that plan isn’t clear to him today. Maybe he’ll work with a local agriculture producer to test his thesis on a larger scale. Perhaps he’ll apply for grants for further study. He’s even considering another run at the city council.
He slips in a joke.
“I always tell everybody I went back to school to get a doctorate so I could write my own prescriptions and cut down on my medical expenses,” he says, smirking.
Perhaps the point of it all is to inspire others to follow their own dream, no matter how long it’s gone unfulfilled.
“There are a lot of people that have a dream that they never pursue,” he said. “I want them to see it as a source of encouragement. You can add something to society. You can do something for your community. This is just one of them.”
Just don’t expect him to wake each morning and settle at the dining room table to sip coffee and watch the world go around for another spin.
“To have nothing to do,” he said, “is probably horrible.”