1999 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, and make education a lifelong process."
Michael Wright was born in 1938 in Minneapolis to working class parents. His father grew up at the turn of the century in Stillwater, Minnesota, where sawmills processed the lumber that came down the St. Croix River from the northern logging camps. His grandfather, a lumberjack, met a premature death after falling through ice while driving a team of horses up the St. Croix. Michael Wright's father was in eighth grade at the time and, being the eldest boy, quit school to support his family. Instead of going to high school, he worked in the lumber camps until he was a young adult, then, in the early 1920s, went to Minneapolis and secured a job as a timekeeper on a construction project for the power company. Wright's father did what he had to do to help his family, but he always regretted his lack of a formal education. He vowed that he would not allow the same thing to happen to his own children.
The Wright's home was modest, rented at first and then eventually purchased for $28 a month. Michael Wright's mother worked in their home as a photographic retoucher. She often worked after dinner until midnight or beyond, earning only 10 or 15 cents per photo. When he was in the fifth grade, Wright got his first job washing pots and pans at the local bakery. Other childhood jobs included paper routes, picking weeds for a local nursery, golf caddie, and grocery store carry-out boy. During his last three years in high school, he worked for the power company on an overhead line crew. Each spring during high school, when the Ice Follies came to town for two weeks, Wright worked as their night watchman.
Wright tried to schedule his jobs to accommodate sports. Large for his age-he was over six feet tall in the seventh grade-Wright was skilled in football, basketball, and baseball. He loved sports and helped lead his eighth grade basketball team in securing both the Minneapolis Championship and the Twin Cities Championship. For his abilities, Wright was recruited by a Catholic boys high school in St. Paul, which included a partial scholarship. Wright spent his first two years hitchhiking the 24 miles to and from school until he was able to buy his first car, a '38 Dodge, for $45.
During his freshman year in high school, Wright played varsity basketball. The team won the state championship and he was selected for the All-State team. As a senior, he was named All-American on the Chicago World's All-Catholic football and basketball teams. In addition to sports, Wright was an excellent student and graduated near the top of his class. He received college scholarship offers from Stanford, Notre Dame, Dartmouth, Colorado, and more, but he chose the University of Minnesota so that his parents could come to his games. He knew he wanted to be a lawyer, and Minnesota had an accelerated program that allowed him to take his first year of law school during what would have been his senior year of college.
Still feeling the need to work, Wright spent the summer before college as a laborer on a construction site. During the school year, he worked part time as a mailroom clerk for an insurance company. He continued to excel in football, and during his first year of law school, Wright served as captain of the Minnesota team and was an Academic All-American. To finance his final years of law school, Wright knew he would have to play professional football. He was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, but chose instead to play for Bud Grant and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League. After two professional football seasons, a Grey Cup Championship, and All-Star honors, he retired from football and finished law school. In 1963, he graduated with honors and the order of the coif .
After law school, Wright joined the prominent Minneapolis law firm of Dorsey & Whitney. He worked for a year, was drafted into the Army for two years, and then returned to Dorsey & Whitney in 1966. In 1977, Wright was handling the legal affairs for SUPERVALU INC. Impressed with his work, the CEO of SUPERVALU offered Wright a senior vice presidency and a seat on SUPERVALU's board. Wright accepted the offer. In 1978, 18 months after joining the company, Wright was made president and COO. By 1981, he was CEO. He added the title of chairman of the board in 1982. He retired in 2001.
When asked about his meteoric rise at SUPERVALU, Wright says his time in athletics helped prepare him for his future successes. "Athletics teaches you discipline, how to work hard to accomplish your goals, and how to succeed in a team environment. It also teaches you how to overcome the trials and tribulations of losing. Even though at times you lose, you don't quit, you keep trying. The competitive desire necessary in athletics is also necessary in business and in life. Athletics also teaches you how to put winning into perspective. Ultimately, in any endeavor, it's performance that counts. Anyone can compete, but it seems that those who work the hardest and perform the best on a consistent basis are the ones who usually succeed."