EAST COBB — In just over two months, Cobb County will see its first resident inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame.
The late Jean Elisabeth Geiger Wright, a longtime east Cobb resident highly regarded as a pioneer and fighter for environmental conservation and animal rights in the county and the state, will be inducted at a ceremony in Macon in March. She is remembered by family and friends as a stubborn but beloved activist with a kind heart and a passion for education.
She will join a distinguished list of honorees, including writers, journalists, educators, civil rights activists, nurses and even an American Revolution patriot.
Wright, a lifelong community advocate and volunteer, died in 2002 at age 78. Shortly after, Cobb County purchased her property, which now functions as the Jean & Elwood Wright Environmental Education Center, just south of the intersection of Johnson Ferry and Post Oak Tritt roads. Elwood Wright, her husband, died in 2007, at age 89.
The nearly 20 acres, which friends and family say Jean Wright worked tirelessly to restore from the cotton farm it was when she bought it to the forest it is today, was certified in April as a Wildlife Sanctuary by the Atlanta Audubon Society. Hers is one of multiple properties across Cobb, Pickens and Union counties that Wright worked to protect during her life’s work.
In her animal rights endeavors, Wright is credited with expansion of the Cobb animal shelter, increasing the rate of adoptions, decreasing rates of euthanasia and lobbying local and state government for more robust animal rights.
Judy Beard, master gardener project coordinator at the Wright Center, and former Cobb County eastern district commissioner Thea Powell, also a master gardener at the environmental center, worked for two years on Wright’s nomination documents.
Jean Wright, the environmentalistJean Wright moved to Cobb County with her husband, Elwood Wright, their first child, Kristina, and Jean’s mother, Jessie Geiger, in the late 1940s from Decatur to escape to what was considered the country at the time, according to Beard and Powell’s research, as well as family testimony.
The Wrights purchased nearly 20 acres just off Johnson Ferry Road, which then was no more than a two-lane dirt path and completed construction of their home there in 1952.
Powell and Beard said Jean Wright’s work to return her land to its natural state began with the planting of four strategically placed oak trees at the corners of her one-story home meant to provide shade on an otherwise flat and barren piece of land.
The oak trees, which in pictures taken in the ’50s look to be no larger around than a baseball, now tower over the home surrounded by nature trails, frog ponds as well as native plants and flowers in what became Jean Wright’s own personal forest.
“It was one plant at a time. She didn’t instantly turn a cotton farm ... into a forest, but a forest was her goal,” Beard said.
As she delved deeper into the studies of horticulture and environmental protection through the years, Jean Wright’s children say they recall taking trips with their mother in her 1957 Plymouth sedan to rescue azaleas, camellias and iris from developments like Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta and Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell.
Bob Wright, 68, the second of Jean and Elwood Wright’s three children, lives on 10 acres on the opposite side of Johnson Ferry Road from his childhood home. He and his family, like his mother, have also placed their land in a conservation easement to preserve it in perpetuity.
Bob Wright said whenever his mother brought home company, she’d proudly take them on a tour of the always-growing variety of plants she’d rescued. He said that obvious and wholehearted love for the world around her was passed on to the children in the family.
“That was what she did. She was either working out in the yard or rescuing plants or rescuing dogs or down at the county beating someone over the head about the (animal) shelter or the roads or the overcrowding in the schools,” he said, noting that while her main area of concern was the environment, Jean Wright reached into other areas of advocacy.
Beard and Powell said Jean Wright’s efforts to save endangered and native plants were hailed through the decades by various state environmental agencies, including the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and she served on various boards dedicated to protecting the natural environment.
But Jean Wright also whispered directly in the ear of state leaders.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes told the MDJ he’d known Jean Wright for years before he took office in 1999. He called her a visionary, saying she was instrumental in the creation of a program that was far ahead of its time — the Georgia Community Greenspace Program.
Barnes said the program, which he signed into law in 2000 but was discontinued during Gov. Sonny Perdue’s time in office, aimed to encourage rapidly developing counties to voluntarily set aside a percentage of their land as “green space.” He said the state was putting $50 million to $100 million a year into the program during its life.
“The idea of putting together a set-aside of so much of a development in green space to not only protect the environment but also to provide recreation space was new. It was her invention,” Barnes said.
Barnes said Jean Wright taught him how to sell the idea to developers to show it was a win-win, and called it “greatly unfortunate” that it had been discontinued. But, he added, her ideas live on in many municipalities, where city planners require a percentage of developments to be dedicated to green space.
Jean Wright, the animal loverBob Wright recalled stories of his mother having a pet alligator when she was a child, and how he grew up with many dogs over the years, a fact he says contributed to his not owning a single dog today.
“I’m dogged out,” he said, noting there were times when his mother cared for more than 20 dogs in her house.
Bob Wright said decades ago people thought nothing of ditching their pooch on the side of the road, and when one of the pups would show up on Jean Wright’s front porch, there was no question whether she would be taking it in.
“I think that’s really what started her getting into the Humane Society and the animal business,” he said.
Beard further illustrated her care for all of God’s creatures, including bears, bobcats, hawks and raccoons.
“Raccoons came in the front door. She fed them inside. She just loved living things,” Beard said.
In the 1960s, while she cared daily for her ailing mother, Jean Wright became an animal shelter volunteer and developed relationships in the community that resulted in many animals being nursed back to health, according to Powell and Beard. In 1969, she began a partnership with veterinarian Dr. Henry Bohn, caring for stray and injured dogs, a partnership that lasted two decades.
She is also credited with lobbying for larger animal shelter facilities in Cobb County after she visited and was reportedly appalled at the conditions and lack of space in which the animals lived.
Jean Wright’s push for the passage of two bond referendums, one in 1978 and one in 1992, led to the construction of two successively larger shelters, according to her nomination. Those efforts led to a significant reduction in the shelter’s rate of euthanasia, Beard and Powell said.
Beard said before the expansions, the police were in charge of the shelters, and given their lack of resources, were forced to euthanize many of the animals.
Powell and Beard also said that later in her life, Jean Wright became a state lobbyist for animal rights before there was such an established position. She is the reason an animal rights lobbyist exists at the state Capitol today, they said.
Jean Wright, the activist and educatorFamily and friends say Jean Wright tried to stay out of the limelight — she’d go so far as to have others read her own comments from the lectern at public meetings — but did everything she could to influence change through local governments behind the scenes.
Powell, who knew the environmental steward personally, said Jean Wright was not only dedicated to preservation of the natural world and all its living creatures, but also to educating the next generation of the Earth’s keepers. Her message was clear, and she was persistent but never a bully, Powell said.
“She did all her research, so she knew what could be done and what couldn’t be done. And she was very adamant about the commissioners doing the right thing,” Powell said. “She was there to solve a problem.”
The former commissioner said years after the county declined Jean Wright’s suggestion to create a nature center behind the animal shelter in the late ’80s, a suggestion Powell said was for the purpose of youth education, the hard-nosed community advocate placed her own land in a conservation easement in 1996, ensuring anyone who set foot on the property would step into a preserved oasis primed for discovery.
“(She knew) that if the next generation learned about the environment and the importance of the environment, then they’re going to be our leaders that would hopefully take that legacy and that banner with them,” Powell said.
Shortly after Jean Wright died in 2002, Cobb County purchased her land with green space money, renovated her former home and transformed it into an environmental education center bearing her name.
Jean Wright’s family and friends say she likely wouldn’t be happy she is to be inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame, as she never wanted any credit for the work she was doing. But, they add, not recognizing her contributions would be ignoring a woman who fought to make the county and the state better for all those who live here, people, plants and animals alike.
“The county is a better place for our family and for all the families that moved here during that big development phase,” Bob Wright said. “It’s definitely a better place for all of us.”