Obituary: Nancy Means Wright, 1927-2022 | Obituaries | Seven days

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  • Nancy Wright

“Vermont is my main writing landscape. I love its mountains, its valleys, its autumn leaves, its winter snows – even the mud season.” —NMW

Partner, mentor and wordsmith extraordinaire Nancy Means Wright passed away on January 19, 2022, in the 95th year of her life. Born in Glen Ridge, NJ, to Jessie Thomson and Robert Means, Nancy was an adventurer, teacher, actress, theater director, activist, outspoken advocate for the downtrodden, and bear mother to her four children. But above all, she was a storyteller.

Her first novel, written when she was 9, was a mystery about the kidnapping of an obnoxious older brother. His Scottish mother found him, thought she had a wannabe delinquent in the house, and tore him apart. “It was my first refusal.”

Undaunted, Nancy continued to write poems, stories and the “first chapters of depressing novels” while attending Miss Beard’s boarding school and Vassar College on a scholarship. She sang with the violas (as she would for the next 70 years), caught pneumonia while sneaking across a snowy rooftop with wet hair, and finished her homework days before it was due. (A habit she tried, unsuccessfully, to instill in her offspring.)

Nancy cut her teeth teaching English at Garrison Forest in Maryland and Boys Home in Virginia, but when her husband from Vermont landed a job in the early 1950s at Proctor Academy, a boarding school for men, the principal kindly informed her that “teaching English is a man’s job. Despite a hard-won master’s degree at the Bread Loaf School of English, she was directed to the remedial reading department.

In response, she enrolled in the French language school at Middlebury, graduated from the Sorbonne, and returned to head Proctor’s language department. During her 20 years on campus, she bonded deeply with her students (she had a soft spot for rebels) and together they staged provocative plays like Ionesco’s. Rhinoceros and Heller We bombed in New Haven.

Summers at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference nurtured Nancy’s writing habit, and a scholarship from the conference helped launch her first published novel. From there, a tense morning writing schedule — the lifeboat she clung to through home renovations and plumbing repairs, three life partners, community plays, countless workshops writing, an adjunct professorship at Marist College, years as a Vermont humanities scholar, and an infamous run as a curator at Cornwall Crafts (all of which she exploited for her craft) – produced a legacy of poems, literary novels, non-fiction, detective stories, YA novels, plays and short stories.

In all, Nancy has published 20 books. And as she shape-shifted through time and space (“I’ve always enjoyed putting myself in the minds and hearts of others”), channeling tough farmers, female Spitfire pilots in times of war in London and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her fond memoirs, Make your own changeabout life along Route 30 in Cornwall, was a fan favorite.

Nancy joked about letting her offspring “bleed outside my office door” when she worked, but in truth she was a mother tree, supporting friends and family on a cellular level. The new letters arrived at their destination before you. Emails materialized in your inbox after midnight, thanking you profusely for the slightest gesture. You were too kind. Brilliant, even. And while she loved the stormy weather, the sky was falling if she thought you were driving somewhere in it. Nobody got more elated when your puck went into the net or your stick caught the ball, and nobody suffered more intensely when you were shut out.

A selfless collaborator, Nancy made her editorial assistance available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. First comer, she sat front and center in your performance. Wandering creatures have been taken care of. The lilacs savored. And if it must be said that her children’s school lunches were not the most copious (bolognese on white bread), she rather fed them with a rich profusion of books: Daughter of the Limberlost, Song of Solomon, Dickens, the whole Bronte canon. The home she shared with longtime partner Llyn Rice was a warm haven of local art, tea and cutting-edge novels from Middlebury Bookstore.

And always his refrain: “Don’t worry about me please.” :

Nancy will be missed by her partner, Llyn Rice; her four children, Gary Wright, Lesley Wright and her husband James Ellefson, Donald Wright and her partner Denise Viscomi, and Catharine Wright and her partner Karen Grimm; her stepchildren, Laurel and Shanti Rice; his seven grandchildren, Zoë (and her fiancé Nuño), Spencer (and his wife Ursula), Alex, Zélie (and her husband Alex), Rosalie (and her partner Brad), Connor and Forrest; his step-grandson, Austin Grimm; his great-grandson, Archer; and three cats, Gabby, Quincy and Sheba. Other survivors include a valuable network of fellow writers, Unitarian Universalist friends, former students, nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by the father of her children, Spencer Wright; her college flame (and second husband), Dennis Hannon; and three siblings, Grace Arnold, Donald Means and Jack Means.

A celebration of Nancy’s life will be held this summer at Wright’s Lake Dunmore cabin, date to be determined. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in his memory to a nonprofit organization fighting social equity or climate change. Donations can also be made to the Addison County College of Aged Services.

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