History with a familiar face

Choices: Seven years ago, Debbie Wright left a high-profile TV job at WJZ to simplify her life. Now she's back, as Harriet Tubman.

February 24, 2000|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Simplify: to make simple, less complex.

Who hasn't thought of downshifting at some point in life? The idea usually surfaces after spending enough years clawing through the corporate world.

For former WJZ-TV reporter Debbie Wright, the journey back to a simpler life began with a long look in the bathroom mirror.

"I always said I could only stay and work in television if I looked in the mirror and liked what I saw," she says. One day seven years ago, after returning from a vacation and finding her desk piled high with mail and her telephone message system full, she decided to take stock of her situation.

"I went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and didn't like what I saw," Wright says. "And I'm not talking about a vanity thing. I know it sounds crazy, but it's not."

So she simplified, eventually returning to her roots in a small Arkansas town.

Seven years later, Wright is back in Baltimore this week, taking part in the Baltimore Museum of Industry's "History Live" program. She portrays Harriet Tubman, the Maryland-born hero of the Underground Railroad movement, at various locations around town. But more about that later.

Wright, still petite with a serious yet friendly demeanor, reflects about what life was like -- and why she chose to get on a slower track.

"It was time," she says. She was still capable of doing the work, she explains, but the desire had lessened.

Wright, 45, worked at WJZ from August 1981 to February 1993. Throughout the years, she held jobs as a consumer affairs reporter, weekend anchor and education reporter. "I love Baltimore and enjoyed my time at WJZ," she says. "They were like family."

But a number of reasons convinced her it was time to leave.

"I thought the business was becoming negative," she says. "As the education reporter, I did positive spots, but it was increasingly becoming my job to do negative stories."

She adds that she felt she had hit a glass ceiling, and that she wasn't much for a "happy talk" news format.

WZJ spokeswoman Liz Chuday says she can't really respond to Wright's observations about those days at the station.

While working and living in Baltimore, Wright's busy schedule was filled with covering late-breaking news stories, working on educational features and fulfilling constant speaking engagements.

After leaving WJZ, Wright says, she wasn't sure of her next step. For a while, she remained in the television business part time, doing some public relations work and working as a free-lancer at a Washington, D.C., station and Maryland Public Television.

But the idea of moving to the small town where her family lived was becoming more appealing. "My grandfather was approaching his 100th birthday, and I wanted to spend time with him," she says.

Now Wright lives in Hot Springs, Ark., population 32,000. It is where her grandparents lived, where both her parents had been raised and a place she had visited often as a child growing up in Chicago. Now her parents live there again, too, and Wright is a reporter for the Malvern Daily Record, a newspaper in the nearby town of Malvern, population 9,200.

The newspaper publishes Tuesdays through Fridays, and Wright is a general assignment reporter. The bright TV lights, the face recognition, the speaking engagements are no more.

"People looking at this from the outside looking in may wonder why I left," she says.

Some understand, though. Wright is part of a small, unofficial movement of adults who decide to get out of a fast-paced, corporate-fueled lifestyle, with all of its material trappings, and return to a simpler way of life.

For Wright, it came down to returning to family.

"I did feel a desire to get back to my roots," Wright says. "Sometimes we have to dig deep to find our roots and find out who we are."

Her return to simplicity doesn't mean she's not busy. Along with her newspaper work, Wright plans to go back to college to get a master's degree in journalism. "I still enjoy communicating," she says. Her long-term goal is to do Christian and spiritual writing.

And then there is her re-enactment work.

Wright's association with the Baltimore Museum of Industry came when she saw an advertisement seeking people to perform historical portrayals.

When she moved to Maryland, she became "fascinated" with Harriet Tubman," she says. "And I'm a writer, so I wrote a script" and tried out. Since 1996, Wright has been portraying Tubman for the museum, as well as performing at venues such as retirement communities, churches and schools. She'll be at the museum for programs today and tomorrow.

"As long as the museum wants me, I'll keep coming back," she says.

Yet there is something else she is strongly considering.

"I think I will ultimately end up in the ministry," Wright says. "That will surprise no one who really knows me."

But she still has no plans of leaving Hot Springs for the big city -- any big city.

Her move toward greater simplicity, she says, "has brought me closer to God, closer to my family and closer to friends."

Performance

What: "History Live" at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, 1415 Key Highway

When: Today at 9: 30 a.m. and 10: 30 a.m.; Friday at 10 a.m.

Tickets: $5 per person, includes a museum tour

Call: 410-727-4808

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