published Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Louis 'Bulldog' Wright learning how to be retired

Louis Wright
Louis Wright
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ABOUT LOUIS WRIGHT

Louis Wright retired as the county's finance administrator on March 28. Aside from serving the county for nearly 40 years he:

• Was born and raised in Hamilton County.

• Graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a bachelor's degree in accounting.

• Despite a college deferment, he was drafted to go to Vietnam, and was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. But the war ended before he was sent overseas.

• Started his first job at a public accounting firm in Rome, Ga.

• Retired on the same day as his wife, Billie, who was director of the Foster Grandparent Program of Chattanooga

• Had three children; two are living and one is deceased.

Former County Executive Dalton Roberts dubbed him "Bulldog" and for nearly 40 years — 38 years and six months to be exact — the name stuck.

Louis Wright spent his final morning at work sparring with county commissioners more than a week ago. It was the last of more than 2,000 commission meetings he's attended during his career managing the county's wallet.

But on Thursday he sat at Wally's Restaurant on McCallie Avenue in front of a plate of Texas Pete-drenched salmon patties.

Instead of a suit and tie, he was in a plaid shirt and blue jeans. He hadn't gone to work in nearly a week.

"It's weird. ... I don't mean to sound redundant, but I've never retired before," Wright said. "We've slept in a little, and that's been nice. But it's a strange feeling."

Wright started in the county auditing department in 1975, when he was 25. In those days, the County Commission was still a few years away from existing. Even through the massive reorganization in 1978, when the commission was created, and through a county executive, two mayors and nine commission terms, Wright remained. After doing several jobs for several departments, Wright was made finance administrator in 1998, and there he remained.

But he wasn't alone. Wright said because of the continuity of leadership in the county over the decades, many of the staff have stuck around, too.

"The county is fortunate in that we've had stability. Other counties haven't had that," Wright said. "And we've been able to keep the politics out of the professional area."

That could change though. On Thursday, Wright noted a number of longtime county employees who can and are likely to retire soon. It will be a passing of the old guard -- in some ways, the first guard.

But now, at 64, Wright's trying to relearn some hobbies.

He used to fish, he likes golf -- as long as no one is playing behind him -- and he's a big fan of college football.

At a retirement reception for Wright on March 28, his boss had no complaints about Wright's service.

"Louis exemplifies an extraordinary commitment to public service. Louis has been a fiscal conservative for the taxpayers of Hamilton County as he managed government funds. Louis genuinely cares about the taxpayers he has served," said Mayor Jim Coppinger. "During my tenure as mayor I have witnessed a skill set that was second to none as it relates to Louis' service as chief financial officer of this county."

Wright said Thursday the county has always been in sound financial shape, but he was proud to have helped to improve it. In 1975, Hamilton County had what was then called a AA+ credit rating from one rating agency. Now, all three major rating agencies give it top marks. It can't get better.

BULLDOG

Wright wasn't sure exactly why Roberts nicknamed him "Bulldog," but he said he suspected it had something to do with how he worked.

"I think he called me that because I'd start on a project, and I'd just keep chewing on it until it was done," Wright said.

Although the moniker might have had something to do with what colleagues have called Wright's "stubborn determination."

One morning in February 2013, Wright had an aortic aneurysm -- a tear in his main heart valve -- and was hospitalized. He was out of work for months, and some feared he would not return -- or survive.

For Wright, that wasn't acceptable.

"I didn't want to go out on my back, so to speak. I wanted to come back and show that I could do the job as well as I ever did. And I think I did that. I proved it to myself anyway, and that's what matters," he said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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