CEDAR FALLS — The irony of the crudely built, partially burned crosses tucked away in a corner of her family’s garage isn’t lost on Stephanie Wright.
Wright, the first African-American assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, prosecuted a 1997 federal case in which those crosses were burned outside the home of an interracial couple in Quasqueton. The evidence is a reminder to Wright that even though she’ll retire this month, there’s still work to be done to right the world’s wrongs.
“People think that kind of stuff doesn’t go on in Iowa,” Wright said. “But these acts of hatred still happen today. What better proof than this?”
Wright will leave her post July 31 after 24 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, “one of the best jobs in the world. It is not easy to get,” she said.
“Not easy” is putting it lightly for Wright, whose path to federal law was untraditional and circuitous. Law actually was her second career. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Missouri at St. Louis — where she met her husband, Charles — she took a job as an engineering analyst with John Deere.
“I got laid off. And I just felt there was something better for me,” she said. “I was 38 when I went to law school.”
It was a tough decision. She and Charles had two daughters at home. But Charles and the girls encouraged her.
“It was scary. Law school is scary. But my daughters said, ‘Mom, you can do it.’”
And Charles? Charles has always believed in her, she said. The day they met in college, he asked Wright to marry him. She told him he was crazy. They eloped three weeks later and have been married for more than 45 years.
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“I first give honor to God. I honor my husband, mother, daughters and friends who have supported me. There is no way I would have lasted 24 years (as an assistant U.S. attorney) without support,” Wright noted. “Nobody is successful in anything unless they have support from other people. Support and prayer are definitely the key.”
Wright received her law degree from Northwestern School of Law in Portland, Ore. She served as assistant Black Hawk County attorney before being offered the post as assistant U.S. attorney. Wright practiced in the office’s criminal division and shifted work to the civil division, where she has done extensive work making sure Iowa’s public spaces are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her last day in office will be bittersweet, Wright said.
“I think I’m going to be emotional. I’m going to have to put on my courtroom face,” she joked.
Wright and her husband, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service five years ago, will move to Roanoke, Va., to be close to one of their daughters and a grandson who’s got two years left of high school.
“After that, the world is our home,” Wright said.
The couple also are licensed pilots and may find time to take to the skies more frequently.
Wright, who is licensed to practice in several states, isn’t ready to quit law wholesale, though.
“I’m already preparing to make application to practice in Virginia. I need to do that because it may come to a point where I need to help someone. I’ll remain licensed here, too, so I could come back and help with a case if I’m called to.
“I have worked with and been trained by the best. I have confidence I could go anywhere in the world and know how to handle myself in the courtroom. I have the U.S. attorney’s office to thank for that.”