Feature, Local News

Homewood centenarian was pioneer in her profession

When someone turns 100, you might not expect that they’d have much of a social calendar. But that’s not the case for Marjorie Wright of Homewood, who hit the century mark on Oct. 10. There had been several weeks of celebrations leading up to the big day, a family wedding in Wisconsin that week, a church service in her honor. 

Marjorie Wright displays some of the cards she has received in celebration of her 100th birthday on Oct. 10, 2022. (Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

Then again, you don’t live that long by just sitting in a chair as life passes by.

Wright was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, the second of five girls and the daughter of a prominent architect. She always loved numbers and math and wanted to become a math teacher. 

Her father died not long after she graduated high school and like her older sister, who left the University of Chicago where she’d won a full scholarship to help take care of her mother, Wright quit school and went to work to help support the family. 

While working in an accounting job for Jewel Foods (now Jewel Osco) she met a man named Irv  Cyka who was the head of the meat department for the grocery chain. 

“We were friends and he asked me out and we started a friendship. He was a little older than me, but I felt like I was a mature young lady,” she said. 

The two married in 1944 and they bought a house in Homewood in 1958 where Wright still lives. 

Marjorie Wright, right, and her stepdaugher, Vivian Panagopoulos, hold the resolution presented to Wright by St. Paul’s Community Church in honor of her 100th birthday. She has been a member of the church since 1958, and her grandfather was involved in the early development of the church. (Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)
Marjorie Wright, right, and her stepdaugher, Vivian Panagopoulos, hold the resolution presented to Wright by St. Paul’s Community Church in honor of her 100th birthday. She has been a member of the church since 1958, and her grandfather was involved in the early development of the church. (Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

Her family’s ties to Homewood go back to the 19th century when her grandparents settled into Homewood and when her grandfather played an instrumental part in leading what is now St. Paul Community Church in Homewood. 

“My mother was from a family that ended up here,” said Wright. “Her father was a minister who was born in Russia, but he spoke German. He was going to be a rabbi, but some friends were Protestant and went to seminary school, so he changed and became a minister. When he came to this country one thing led to another and he ended up in this community and there were many German-speaking people. He helped develop that church and stayed there a long time. So I knew the community from visiting my grandparents.”

She also had an aunt who was a teacher and uncle who was an engineer who spent their adult lives in Homewood. 

“We visited them. It was far different back then. We would go to soda pop counters that are long gone,” she said.

Wright has continued to attend St. Paul’s Community Church since moving to Homewood in 1958 and she was recognized at a church service on Oct. 16 and presented with a framed resolution honoring her. 

In the late 1940s, Wright went to work for the St. Regis Paper Company, where she worked in sales and management in the industrial bag division. The national company had offices in Chicago and she commuted by train to her downtown office. 

It was unusual for a female to hold such a position and Wright said she’d go to sales meetings where there were 72 men in the room and she was the only woman. 

“I went into sales and women weren’t easily accepted into mens’ positions. It was an industry a lot of people didn’t understand or weren’t aware of. It had been a man’s world, so it was an accomplishment,” she said. “I never felt ill at ease. It was my job and I enjoyed it. It was my cup of tea and I was successful. I loved the challenge.” 

Wright was the first female saleswoman with the company and earned several awards in her field. 

Wright recalled that she’d sometimes make the walk to work to board the train and she had a group she’d play bridge with on the ride into the city. 

“The first one on would move the back of the seat to go forward so we could sit across from each other and we’d have space for our bridge game. We’d get a bit in on the way. There wasn’t much else to do unless you wanted to read the newspaper,” she said. 

She still plays bridge any time she has an opportunity to do so and has regularly scheduled games on her calendar.

She also loves to read and has been involved in the Flossmoor Book Club for about 50 years and they held a little birthday party in her honor recently. She said she enjoyed not just the reading part of it, but getting into the decision making behind the club. 

In just about everything she’s been involved in, she ended up being on a board or managing the activities. She liked organizing and planning and managing and often took the lead on projects in social activities as well as at work.

“She always has to be busy,” said her stepdaughter, Vivian Panagopoulos. She and her husband bought the home from Wright two years ago and have lived with her ever since.

Irv passed away in 1982. After 37 years, she retired from the paper company.

In 1986, she married Frank Wright, a local dentist, after her sister had set them up on a blind date. The two got along well and had fun together. 

“My sister matched us up and from there it worked very well and went very fast. I never had children of my own, but I inherited his family — 11 children. We traveled a lot and played cards and my circle of friends increased as well as my family. My life has been very good,” she said. 

The couple decided that they’d live in the home Wright had been in since 1958 and they added some rooms on to the home.

Frank was very involved in the Village of Homewood and served as a village trustee. Marjorie found many things to love about where she lived. 

“I like the town layout, the merchants, a good variety of stores and amusement places, the roads were kept in good order,” she said. “When you live as long as I have, you tend to live with the time. When things changed, I changed with them — especially in women’s fashions. I just figured someone else is making those decisions and let’s try it. I try not to second guess. If I have an opinion I can voice it and I would be happy to do that, but I feel like we have to try what other people at the time consider to be important.”

Wright loves art and theater and watching football. 

“She loves the theatre. She and my father were members of the theaters and the ballet and would go to shows in Chicago every week,” said Panagopoulos.

The start of her birthday celebrations happened in late summer at a cottage her father had built in Coloma, Michigan, the year she was born. There was a big reunion at the cottage with family and friends who had spent time there over the years — a celebration of a century for both Marjorie and the second family home where she spent entire summer seasons as a child.

Her father had bought a strip of land and built four cottages on it, but ended up selling off three of them to friends during the Great Depression. 

“We spent the whole summer up there. My mom didn’t have a car. The milkman would come around and some produce was delivered. My dad would come up on the weekend and bring groceries. We had no refrigeration back then – just an ice box, but my mom was a good cook and knew how to preserve food.”

Besides the big celebration at the cottage, a party with the book club and recognition at a church service, she had a birthday dinner with all of her stepchildren and has continued to be taken out for dinner by family and friends. 

“The cards keep coming in and I try to display them all,” said Panagopoulos.

The family of 11 children that she inherited has grown to include 13 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great grandchildren.

Wright is in good health with a few of the challenges that you might expect from someone who is moving into their second century — her eyesight has declined and she reads from large print on an iPad. Difficulty in hearing stems from a bout of Scarlet Fever at age 6 that led to permanent hearing loss in one ear. She’s had a couple falls, but a cane helps her get around from point A to point B.

“She’s a good eater and a good sleeper. She likes to eat colorful food and keeps busy all the time. She folds laundry and does household work and I have to give her things to do every day,” said Panagopoulos. “She lives a healthy lifestyle and she likes a glass of chardonnay each night with dinner.”

A good attitude has no doubt helped with her longevity, as well. She was hesitant to give advice, but offered what she thinks has helped her live so long. 

“Be happy. Be active. Be healthy and have a positive attitude,” she said. “I don’t believe in telling people what to do. They need to think for themselves and be aware of what’s going on around them and think of others. It’s pretty true — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“She’s pretty amazing,” said stepson Kevin Wright. “She’s been our mom longer than our birth mom. She came into our family and just kind of embraced us all.”

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