Philanthropist and businessman C. Kenneth Wright, who helped transform VCU, dies

C. Kenneth Wright
C. Kenneth Wright the day he received his honorary doctorate from VCU. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

C. Kenneth Wright, a longtime businessman and philanthropist whose generous giving is credited with helping to build today’s Virginia Commonwealth University, died this week. He was 94.

Wright and his late wife, Dianne, who died in 2013, were dedicated supporters of VCU and the VCU Health System, including the VCU Massey Cancer Center. Their gifts were numerous and consequential, and they volunteered their time and expertise to the university and health system, said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. 

Wright “will never know how much he impacted the lives of literally thousands of people,” Rao said.

“He understood better than most how much VCU means to Virginia,” Rao said. “He left an indelible mark on our university and our health system and, most importantly, on those we serve together. We are forever grateful for his legacy of service and his vision for a better human experience for everyone. He was so much like our students: creative, focused, optimistic, inclusive, hard-working, determined and always committed to the highest standards. We will miss him dearly."

Marsha Rappley, M.D., VCU senior vice president for health sciences and VCU Health System CEO, said, “Mr. Wright had a spirit of giving that left me personally in awe. He believed that education, science, medicine and engineering will change lives for the better. And he dedicated himself to that.” 

Kenneth Wright, sitting in front of a group of VCU students.
Wright, front, joined by a group of VCU students. The Wrights made several donations to support student success at the university. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Wright served as a trustee of the VCU College of Engineering Foundation and was on the College of Engineering Industrial Advisory Council. The Wrights were among the university’s largest donors, contributing more than $50 million. 

In 1999, the Wrights donated the building that had been the headquarters of Kenneth Wright’s business and was later renovated to become the home of the VCU Brandcenter. The Wrights created the Dianne Harris Wright Professorship for Gynecologic Oncology Research; created a cardiology scholars endowment within the School of Medicine; gave the initial gift to create the Eugene P. Trani Scholars Program, which provides support to exceptional undergraduate applicants; and made a $10.5 million gift to the School of Engineering Foundation that was recognized in the naming of the microelectronics lab as the C. Kenneth and Dianne Harris Wright Virginia Microelectronics Center.

Kenneth Wright, center, joined by his wife, Dianne, and VCU President Michael Rao in 2011.
Wright, center, joined by his wife, Dianne, and VCU President Michael Rao in 2011 when Wright received an honorary doctorate from the university. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Wright and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Foundation made a $16 million gift in 2015 to name the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, which fosters collaborative science and health care research among VCU investigators and students. The gift established six C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Distinguished Chairs in Clinical and Translational Research and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Physician-Scientist Scholars program. The Wright Center became the first federally funded center of its kind in Virginia and is renowned nationally for turning groundbreaking science into lifesaving care. 

“I was very sad to hear of the passing of Mr. Wright,” said Wright Center director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D. “He was amazing in his support of clinical research at VCU. With his original gift of $16 million that he provided to support the newly named C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, he showcased the importance of the mission of the Wright Center: to translate basic research into a positive impact on the health of our community. In a large measure because of his support we were able to renew our Clinical and Translational Science Award last year, being one of only 58 funded centers across the U.S.

“On a more personal level, I will miss Mr. Wright’s genuinely positive and down-to-earth attitude,” Moeller said. “He was always excited about the research taking place at the Wright Center and VCU and happy he could support our mission.” 

Kenneth Wright
Wright at an event at VCU in 2015. "He left an indelible mark on our university and our health system and, most importantly, on those we serve together," said VCU President Michael Rao. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

A $5 million gift in 2017 established the Wright Engineering Access Scholarship Program, a flagship scholarship program to provide need- and merit-based awards to a broad base of College of Engineering students.

“We are deeply saddened by this loss and send our heartfelt condolences to Ken Wright's family and his large community of friends,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Dean of the College of Engineering. “His spirit will continue to live through our students and hundreds of future students who will be able to pursue their dreams because of the C. Kenneth Wright Engineering Access Scholarship program he founded at the VCU College of Engineering. Ken’s engaging manner and desire to create meaningful programs that help others will be honored across our campus. He valued the time he spent with our students and we valued the time we spent with him. He will indeed be missed.”

Wright was the president and owner of Wright Properties and Wright Investments. He also was the retired chairman of Rent-A-Car Company, Inc., an Avis franchise that he operated for more than 45 years. 

In 2011, VCU recognized Wright with its highest award when it presented him with an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony, Rao said Wright was a key figure in VCU’s transformation in the previous two decades, calling him “one of the architects — the man who helped design our future.” Wright said he had received many awards during the course of his lengthy business career but “nothing on the level that I’m receiving today.”

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