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Backgrounder: Irene K. Wright and Professor Gerard Banks

Photos of Student Irene Kuhn and Professor Gerard Banks are from the 1937 Centenary yearbook, Yoncopin

Depression-Era Coed Credits Centenary with Changing Life
New Irene K. Wright Math Building, 5 Endowed Professorships Possible Through Her $2 Million Gift 60+ Years Later

By Natalie Schoppe, Student Intern
Centenary College News Service

It is not uncommon for a professor at Centenary College to touch a student’s life. Professors have been doing this very thing since the opening of the college’s doors in 1825. However, what these professors don’t know is that by caring for their students, a student’s dreams and aspirations can be altered for their whole life, maybe even in their death…

Irene Kuhn in 1937 yearbook, Yoncopin

An example of how a professor can change a student’s life is the story of Irene Wright, born Irene Kuhn. Sixty years ago a particular math professor by the name of Gerard Banks left a lasting impression on this impressionable 20-year-old math major.

The story begins in the fall of 1936. Times were tough with the aftermath of the depression still looming over society. Money was hard to come by, and college was often unheard of in most households. This was a problem for Irene Wright’s family.

After attending Centenary for the previous two years, the day for fall registration for the 1936-37 school year arrived. Professor William Gerard Banks Jr., chair of the Mathematics Department, noticed that one of his students did not show up to register for her classes. Banks knew that Irene had a love for math and was a good student, so he found it unusual that she was not enrolled for fall classes.

After classes that day, professor Banks decided that he would make a trip to Irene’s house to see why she did not show up for registration that day. When professor Banks arrived he had a brief discussion with Irene. She informed him that her family just did not have the money that was needed for her to finish up school at Centenary. She apologized to her professor, but told him that there was just no way that she could finish.

Math Professor Gerard Banks in 1937 yearbook, Yoncopin

Before leaving, professor Banks demanded that the following morning Irene come to Centenary for late registration. He told her that she need not worry about how her college tuition would be paid off, but to leave that problem to him and he would come up with a solution.

The next morning Irene met with professor Banks for late registration. During their meeting he informed the young student that she would be part of a work study program at Centenary. Her jobs would require that she help teach labs, tutor students and run errands for the other math professors when they needed her. Irene agreed to the jobs and in return received 35 cents an hour for her work.

In the years that followed, Irene managed to work hard enough to completely pay off her tuition. She graduated from Centenary College in the spring of 1938 with a B.S. in athematics. She never forgot the compassion that her professor had for her nor did she forget his kindness.

If professor Banks had not come to her house that fall evening to encourage her to come back to school, she would have never done what she did.

After college graduation, Irene searched for a career. It was uncommon in those days for a woman to receive any kind of job other than a secretary. Irene knew that she would never settle for being simply a secretary, but she knew that was where she had to start. She enrolled in a business school to learn how to type and do shorthand.

In 1941 she landed her first job as a secretary at a bank. It wasn’t long after that she worked her way up to the top. After 38 years at the First National Bank, she retired as Vice President and Trust Officer.

Professor Banks, on the other hand, continued to teach where his heart was. He stayed at Centenary for a few more years before retiring as a professor. Gerard Banks was an alumnus of Centenary (1927). By being an alum, he knew just how special Centenary was and he knew that he needed to pass that on to his students.

When Mrs. Irene Wright died in June 2001, she did not forget her beloved Centenary College in her will. By that time she had no other family except for Centenary. Her husband, Herbert Wright, had died years before her and the two of them had no children. So, in her will Irene left a note to Centenary College, which was to be opened only after her death. In this letter, Irene bequeathed over $2 million to Centenary that was to be used for endowments. She also donated 300 shares of Pfizer to the school, thousands of dollars in scholarships, her land and property, as well as all her art books to the Art Department.

Needless to say, she did not forget her roots at Centenary, nor did she ever forget the toughtfulness that her math professor had for her.


The author of this article, Natalie Schoppe, is a junior majoring in communication at Centenary.

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