LONG BRANCH – Like a thoughtful spouse, Lester Wright remembers his wedding anniversary.
“September 26,” he said last week, with his wife Adele cracking a slight smile in the seat next to him.
It would be understandable if memory failed him. Lester and Adele were married in 1941 — 80 years ago. The union of this Long Branch couple has taken an incredible journey.
Lester went off to World War II shortly after the nuptials, earning four Bronze Battle Stars and witnessing brutal scenes in Europe. He returned to open, with Adele, a pioneering dental laboratory on Belmont Avenue; they were among the first African Americans in that field. They raised four children and now have six grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and 11 great-great-grandchildren.
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Lester turns 100 on Friday, and Saturday he’ll mark the milestone in the most impressive fashion imaginable — by racing the 100-meter dash at the Penn Relays before 40,000-plus fans at Philadelphia’s hallowed Franklin Field.
“Isn’t that something?” said daughter Doreen Richardson, who lives with her parents in the Long Branch home they had built in 1968. “It’s amazing.”
Amazing is a good word for it. All of it.
‘Bodies in the gutters’
Lester Wright ran track at Long Branch High School, helping the shuttle hurdles team set a school record. He graduated in 1940, married high school sweetheart Adele a year later and then joined the Army in 1942, at age 20.
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Over the next three years he rose to the rank of sergeant in charge of company payroll and performed the thankless tasks assigned to Black regiments in the segregated Army.
“My outfit, we were trained the bury the dead,” he said. “When we came into Bastogne (in France, during the infamous Battle of the Bulge) it was bodies in the gutters, on the rooftops, on the side of the road. I’ve never seen so many people that were dead.”
It was a dangerous job, too.
“We were bombed and we were strafed,” Wright said. One bomb landed right next to company headquarters, blowing apart a wall. After a while, he picked up on clues for when to take cover.
“You could tell the difference between a German plane and American plane by how they sounded,” he explained. “American engines were smoother.”
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In 1945, Wright was sent home due to a serious illness, spent six weeks in the hospital, and then made a serendipitous career decision. Noticing that he was good with his hands, Veterans Administration officials suggested dental technology school. Upon graduating, he had the option of working for a lab or starting his own. He asked Adele for her thoughts on the latter.
“Let’s go for it,” she told him.
They opened the first African American-owned dental lab in Monmouth County, making prosthetic teeth.
“People went past the window and laughed at us and said, ‘They’re not going to make it,’” Adele said.
“We lasted 38 years,” Lester said. “We made people in Monmouth County pretty.”
With savings from the lab the Wrights bought their first family car, a Plymouth. It cost $75.
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Still running at 99
At one point, as a change of pace after long hours at the lab, Lester’s son suggested he take up running again. He’s been doing it ever since, and not just jogging around the neighborhood. Lester competes for the Shore Athletic Club, hitting stride on the master’s circuit. In 1999, as a 77-year-old, he won the 75-and-over 100-meter dash at the Penn Relays.
As former Asbury Park Press reporter Elliott Denman remembers it, Wright came from behind to win in “very dramatic” fashion.
“It was quite a thrill,” Wright said.
On Saturday, Wright will become the first centenarian competitor in the Shore AC’s 88-year history. The next-oldest competitor in Wright’s race is 92. Every few years, a 100-year-old laces it up at the Penn Relays. Per tradition, the crowd will give the competitors a standing ovation, and Wright in particular will be spotlighted by the public address announcer to thunderous applause.
“He’ll be a hit,” Denman said.
Wright is preparing by running “at least” three times per week. He walks a mile and a half up Joline Avenue, then turns around and runs home.
Asked how he’s still doing it, Wright gives an honest answer.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The secret to marriage
According to Guinness World Records, the longest recorded marriage ever has been 86 years; Americans Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher were wed from 1924 to 2011. As of Jan. 27, Guinness cited the longest current marriage at 81 years — Rhode Island’s Eugene and Dolores Gladu.
Longevity is product of both good fortune and good habits. The same can be said of exceptionally long marriages. Adele Wright is 98 and has some trouble getting around after suffering a broken hip last year, but she’s still sharp.
Asked for the secret to married life, she quipped, “There’s ups and downs. I don’t believe people when they say ‘We never had an argument.’ That’s a whole lot of stuff.”
Adele and Lester had differences and talked them out. They made big life decisions together, as equal partners. And they kept each other active: They pitched horseshoes, played Scrabble, bowled in leagues together.
“They enjoy each other,” Richardson said. “They did everything together.”
About 20 years ago, during a visit with grandson John Wall and his then-teenage sons, everyone went bowling. The Wrights were around 80 years old at the time.
“My sons were like, ‘Yeah, we can beat them,’” Wall said. “Well, they shut the mouths of those teenagers. Those boys, they had to eat humble pie.”
Between Adele and Lester, who is the better bowler?
Lester answered that question the same way he recited the date of their wedding anniversary — with enthusiastic certitude.
“She is!” he said.
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at email@example.com.