Terri Wright Rowan remembers vividly the kindness her father showed a woman with a hunched back more than 50 years ago.
“When we would take the money from (Wright’s Department Store) across the square to the bank behind the courthouse, we would see her,” she said. “The woman sold chewing gum to help make ends meet. Daddy would buy as much as she had, because he didn’t think it was right that she had to sell chewing gum to have extra money.”
Terri said her father, James Monroe Wright, was “respectful and sweet to her.”
“He called her by her first name, asked about her family and said, ‘I need some chewing gum — let me have all you’ve got,’” she said. “And she’d say, ‘Now, Jim ...’ and he’d say, ‘No, I really need it!’ Because she knew what he was doing.”
Wright, at age 36, passed away in a tragic accident 50 years ago that galvanized Ellijay and Gilmer County into a rescue effort, and eventually a recovery mission, after he was swept over Hogshead Falls on the Coosawattee River. The falls are now covered by Carters Lake.
Jim Wright left behind his wife, Virginia Addington Wright, oldest son James Monroe Jr., 14, Terri, 13, Jeff, 2, and Joel, 3 months old. Until then, the Wrights not only had an ideal but exceptional family life, Terri said. In fact, her father wanted to capture their family in a photograph on May 28, 1967. It was a Sunday.
“We got home and Daddy said don’t take your church clothes off, because we’re going to take a family photo of all of us,” Terri recalled. “He had a tripod and set the timer on the camera. He took several different shots.
“A month or more after he passed away, Mom remembered him taking the pictures, and she told G.L. (Huff Jr.). He developed them himself. I feel very fortunate to have that, because I believe it’s the only family photo of us.”
The 50-year anniversary of his passing on May 28 last month also fell on a Sunday.
A daughter’s memories
“He was very fun loving,” Terri said. “If you had a question on any subject, he wouldn’t shy away from it. He would talk about it in a knowledgeable and fatherly manner. He never brushed you off, but gave a valid answer. He was always happy. He and my mom loved each other — they never fought or argued or fussed.
“He would walk in the kitchen singing to my momma, ‘Hey good lookin’, whatcha got cooking? Whatcha got cookin’ for me?’ They were sweet, so good with each other — and that’s the way he was with us.”
Terri remembers going on hunting trips with her dad.
“He had the rifle and we had the bird dogs, and sometimes we’d walk across the railroad trestle bridge to get to Progress Road where we would hunt,” she said. “There was an old mill over there and pastures. He knew when it was safe to cross the bridge because a train wasn’t coming. I would beg to go that way.
“I always wanted to be outdoors with him or wherever he was, because I knew I would learn something that day. He always had a lesson to teach you. There was a closeness between us.”
Wright, who was a captain in the U.S. Army, had to go off for training operations at times.
“He would be gone for six weeks since he stayed in the Reserves,” Terri said. “He would make silly faces all the way down the road when he was leaving, making you laugh, and I remember running on that porch and laughing. He always made the time you had with him important, because he didn’t want you to be sad.”
Jim Wright was “a consistent father with a firm hand.”
“He taught me in Sunday school at (Ellijay) First Baptist, and taught us right from wrong,” Terri said, “and if you did wrong, there would be repercussions. But when he was home, he tried to make life happy for everyone. When he came home, he would be singing or whistling.”
Wright eventually went to work with his parents in the old Wright’s Department Store on the Ellijay square.
“He came home for lunch every day, and if there was a salesman in the store, he would bring him home for lunch,” she said. “He was so considerate of other people. I think those are probably the biggest lessons he taught our family — honesty and being considerate.”
Terri remembers her father reading his Bible every night.
“If I went over there and sat with him, he’d read it out loud,” she said. “Sometimes he’d call us all around, and say, ‘I want you to hear this’ — and he shared the Bible with us. When I was 10 or 11, I accepted Christ and said I wanted to be baptized. Dad talked to me about it — he wanted to make sure it was something I really wanted to do and not just because my friends were doing it. And then we went and talked to Pastor (James) Holt. He took time to get off work and go with me and sit in James Holt’s office and tell the preacher I wanted to be baptized.”
Terri said after her father got the motorcycle shop with Larry Davis, the family usually rode them after church.
“You didn’t do anything until after you went to church, and you had your lunch together — we always had our meals together as a family,” she said. “It was such a good family environment.”
Terri recalled a story of her father and two friends driving up to the Smoky Mountains. Why? They were planning to catch a bear and bring it back to Ellijay.
“They put some food in the trunk and rigged up a stick to hold it open that they could pull out with a string to close it,” Terri said she was told. “The bear got in the trunk and Dad pulled the stick out and the trunk shut. They got in the car to go back to Ellijay and had to stop a short distance down the road because the bear tore through the back seat! They all got out of the car and the bear got out.
“That’s why the manner he died didn’t surprise me. He was always full of adventure. He was an excellent swimmer and taught me to swim. He was the most amazing man to be around.”
The man who told her the story was Bob Thomas, Terri said.
“We lived out in the country, and I didn’t have the right clothes, or this or that, but Jimmy always invited me to be a part of the group he was with — he never left me out,” Thomas said. “Jimmy took up for me — he was about two years older than me — and other less fortunate young boys. We were from the country, not city persons.”
It was Memorial Day weekend, and once a month Wright rode motorcycles with some friends instead of his family. Don Baker, Larry Davis and Russell Williams were with Wright when they went riding that Sunday, according to a May 31,1967, article in the Times-Courier. Davis and Wright were partners in a motorcycle shop.
“There were a lot of roads that went down into that area,” Davis said. “We rode a lot of different places, but there were a lot of old mountain roads and logging roads around the river. I can’t remember what ford we were going across on the river, but we were just hanging out down there.”
Davis said Wright and Williams, who were good friends, decided to body surf down the river a ways.
“There was a waterfall down there — it’s covered now — and so the rest of us waited about a half a mile up the river,” he remembers. “The river made a bend down there, and they went out of sight, just laughing and surfing along, riding the rapids.
“After awhile — I guess we waited over an hour — we thought, ‘Well, what’s going on?’ So I said I’d walk down the side of the river, there was a little trail all the way down to the falls and actually beyond. So I was walking down through there and Russell, here he comes running the other way. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he said, ‘Jimmy went over the falls!’”
Davis said they ran down to the waterfall, hoping Wright had climbed out somewhere.
“There was an island there beside the falls, and that’s where Russell had got out,” Davis said. “He said Jimmy went by laughing and just went over the falls. There was a big boulder at the bottom of the falls, and it was thought Jimmy may have hit that.
“What they were hoping for — and this was a stretch of the imagination, I think — is there might have been an opening back up in there he could’ve gotten into. Jimmy, they say, was a good swimmer and wasn’t afraid of the water.”
Most who remember seeing the falls estimate they were between 15–20 feet high. As word spread that afternoon, what would become a massive rescue effort — and eventually a recovery mission — began to form.
The family found out something had happened while they were visiting kinfolk.
“Jimmy had gone over to my other grandparents’ house, and Dad had gone riding with some friends,” Terri said. “We knew there was an accident, and they were saying Jimmy couldn’t be found — that he was in the water swimming and he couldn’t be found.”
Terri recalls when they arrived at her grandmother’s house next to their home in the Old Blue Ridge Highway community northeast of Ellijay, the driveway was full of cars.
“We pulled in, and that’s when I found out it was my dad,” she said. “It was terrible, it was awful. My little brothers didn’t know my dad, they were very curious about my dad. I’ve tried to tell them all the things that I know, but it was just major, because I’d lost my grandfather to a heart attack and then my dad in less than a year.
“Poppa (Ermel M. Wright) was a state representative and just a character and a half. He was happy and jolly also. They were people who loved life and enjoyed their life and had lots of friends.”
‘Everybody pitched in’
“Search crews worked for about a week,” Davis continued. “They cut trees and placed them in there and a lot of us got out in the water and helped place brush in there (to help build a levee). We actually dammed part of that river up and diverted the water around so we could try to find him. The dozers pushed brush out into the river. There was a couple of days I worked out in the river most all the day, just placing brush, and a lot of other people did, too.
“It was some operation because he was well- known. Everybody pitched in, the whole community. They had dozers down there. There would be eight or 10 people working down in the water, and when they got tired some others would take their place.”
Davis said a diver went underwater and placed dynamite on the opposite side of the river in an effort to cut a deeper channel for diverting the flow, and eventually the plan slowed the water above the falls.
“After a week, it was pretty obvious that was not gonna happen,” he said of finding Wright alive. “Finally, they called a helicopter in, and they flew up and down the river, and spotted his body way down below the falls.
Terri said her family — and the town — had watched and waited.
“It was on the news every day, and we were watching the news every day to see if they had found him,” she said. “We went over to that location, and mom kept saying, ‘I don’t think he’s dead — he was too good of a swimmer. I think he’s just hit his head and he’s out in the woods somewhere. We’ll find him in the woods because he’s hurt.’ She never would give up. And they found him five days or a week later.”
Terri discounted one account that her father was already unconscious when he went over Hogshead Falls.
“Russell told mom that he reached out his hand nd said, ‘You’re going to go over the waterfall!’ and that Dad was too far away — he couldn’t reach him,” she remembers. “And I’m sure Dad wasn’t afraid of (the falls), because he could swim like crazy, and I’m sure he didn’t sense the danger in it.”
Terri said when her family took trips to the beach, her father would play with them awhile, and then tell them he would be back in 30–40 minutes. She said he would swim into the ocean so far from shore they couldn’t see him anymore.
“Russell said Dad was just laughing when he went over the falls, like ‘It’s OK, it’ll be alright’ — he just didn’t think anything about it,” Terri continued. “I remember Russell telling my mom that. If you knew my dad, you’d know he was not fearful. I don’t think they were aware there was a waterfall there, they were just out riding their bikes, and they all got hot and got off their bikes to cool off.”
Davis, and Thomas, both called it “a terrible time” in their lives and remember the sadness that permeated the Ellijay community.
“That was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Davis said. “I had never lost a sibling, but it was like that. Real bad.”
Mike Williams, the son of Russell Williams, also remembers when it happened.
“It tore him up pretty bad,” he said of his father. “Everybody was tore up about it. Jim was a local figure, he was a well-known fellow. Daddy was one of Jim’s best friends.”
Russell Williams passed away in February 2008.
Terri added, “It was a tragic loss for everybody, and not just for his family, but especially for his friends too. There wasn’t room in the church for his funeral ... My mother didn’t date anyone and never remarried.”
Terri was asked about losing her father.
“It was extraordinarily hard,” she said. “I think the hardest thing was putting on any kind of form, like at school, that your father was ‘deceased.’ My mom had to work to support us — she worked in the store, and then worked at Headstart — and she grew a garden.”
Will the family do anything special on Father’s Day?
“We don’t really celebrate Father’s Day,” she said. “We talk about my dad, but we have Father’s Day every day because my dad is in so many weekly conversations. And I have lots of memories.”
Davis said Wright was “one of the finest persons I believe I’ve ever been around.”
“I loved him like a brother,” he said. “We were partners together, and his mother and my daddy were first cousins. He was a good Christian man.”
Terri Rowan said the fact that the whole town grieved showed that her father was “greatly loved.”
“It still hurts,” she said, “but I’ve come to the conclusion that he got his reward in heaven sooner than we did.”
From the pages of the Times-Courier:
Rescue workers are still searching for James Wright
May 31, 1967
Rescue workers from all over the state, led by the Gilmer Civil Defense Unit, continue the search that began late Sunday afternoon for James M. Wright.
Wright, who owned a department store in Ellijay, was swept over the edge of a waterfall on the Coosawattee River as he and three companions were wading above the falls. The rugged stream becomes very swift and chaotic just before the falls. One of the companions told rescue workers he saw Wright as he went over the edge.
Wright, 36, the father of four children, is presumed to be drowned ... Skin divers had refused to enter the treacherous pool at the base of the falls because of the tons of water hammering from overhead.
On Tuesday, rescue workers began to stack sand bags to form a small dam to divert the water going over the falls, allowing divers to search. The falls are said to be three miles above the Carters Dam construction.
The men with Wright were Don Baker, Larry Davis and Russell Williams. The group had been riding motor scooters over rough logging roads in the area when they stopped to cool off and wade.
Final rites held at First Baptist for James M. Wright
June 8, 1967
James Monroe Wright was born Jan. 4, 1932, in Canton, son of the late Ermel M. Wright and Reba Cochran Wright, who survives. He was married to the former Virginia Addington who survives. He was a member of First Baptist Church since a young man.
He operated Wright’s Department Store and was a partner with Larry Davis in the Suzuki Motorcycle Sales and Service in Ellijay. He was a former captain in the U.S. Army. Funeral services were held June 4 at First Baptist Church with Rev. James Holt and Rev. Larry Caywood officiating. Interment was in Mount Vernon Baptist Church cemetery. Bernhardt Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.