New York, N.Y. Autism Speaks announced today that its co-founder Suzanne Wright died this afternoon, Friday, July 29, at her home in Fairfield, CT. Suzanne, who fought a courageous nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer, was surrounded by her family at the time of her death. She was 69.
Autism Speaks Chairman of the Board of Directors Brian Kelly and President and CEO Angela Geiger honored Suzanne’s enduring legacy in a joint statement:
“What Suzanne Wright has done to raise awareness of autism is immeasurable. Even during the past few difficult months, her determination never wavered. For more than a decade, she has been a tireless advocate on the national and international stage: at the United Nations, on Capitol Hill, at Autism Speaks Walks nationwide, and in personal letters of support to individuals and families affected by autism. Suzanne sparked a global conversation with one question: How can we help people with autism live their best possible lives? Persuading the world to see the potential in each child and adult on the vast autism spectrum is her greatest legacy. As we look to the future, Autism Speaks remains committed to advancing the important mission she began.”
In 2005, Suzanne and her husband, Bob Wright, co-founded Autism Speaks after their grandson, Christian, was diagnosed with autism. Guided by the Wrights’ leadership and vision, Autism Speaks has since grown into the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization.
At the helm of Autism Speaks, Suzanne helped create the iconic blue puzzle-piece logo that is now recognized around the world to represent autism. Working with the Ad Council and BBDO Worldwide, Suzanne and Bob Wright launched a ten-year public service announcement campaign that is credited with educating countless families about the early signs of autism. Suzanne also led Autism Speaks’ signature global awareness initiatives. Her indefatigable determination was key to persuading the United Nations to establish April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day, establishing the annual World Focus on Autism, and launching the international Light It Up Blue campaign, which this year lit landmarks, buildings and homes in 157 countries.
As part of the United Nations’ World Autism Awareness Day, Suzanne addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly every year for eight consecutive years. In addition, in conjunction with this event, she organized and hosted the annual World Focus on Autism, an unprecedented gathering of first ladies and dignitaries from around the world, devoted to planning and coordinating efforts to raise autism awareness. In November 2014, Suzanne spoke at the Vatican’s first-ever conference on autism, where she called for all nations and faiths to “walk next to the 70 million children, teens and adults with autism around the world every day.”
Suzanne was born in the Bronx on December 16, 1946. She was the daughter of James Werner, a lieutenant in the New York Police Department and combat veteran of World War II, and Ruth Tobin Werner, a homemaker. Suzanne was raised in West Hempstead, Long Island. As a high school senior, she met her future husband when she attended a dance at the College of the Holy Cross, where Bob was a student. She knew immediately that he would become her husband.
They married in 1967, between Bob’s second and third year of law school at the University of Virginia School of Law, and moved into married student housing on campus. To help support her husband, Suzanne took a job as the assistant to the manager of the Monticello Hotel.
Suzanne’s education and career ambitions were put on hold while she focused on raising her three children and supporting Bob in his legal and business career, which included a federal court legal clerkship, private legal practice, positions of increasing responsibility at General Electric, and the role of president of Cox Enterprises. In 1986, he was named president and CEO of NBC. She moved her household 11 times in her first 15 years of marriage.
Suzanne quickly became a vital part of the culture at NBC, helping to make the company a warm place where people felt valued and their contributions appreciated. Countless employees were touched by her acts of kindness over the twenty years that she and Bob were part of NBC. Suzanne never hesitated to reach out to members of her NBC family, whether in times of need or celebration.
Her commitment to her husband and to NBC did not keep her from pursuing her dream of earning her college degree. After several years of hard work, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 1998.
In addition to her work with Autism Speaks, Suzanne had an extensive history of active involvement in community and philanthropic endeavors, primarily focused on helping children. She served on the board of directors for several organizations, including Make-A-Wish Metro New York, the Laura Pels Foundation, the Inner-City Foundation for Charity & Education, and the Philadelphia-based Champions of Caring Project. Suzanne was a trustee emeritus of Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater, and served on the board of the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund. She also received numerous awards, including the Women of Distinction Award from Palm Beach Atlantic University, the Child Magazine Children’s Champions Award, Luella Bennack Volunteer Award, Spirit of Achievement Award from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's National Women’s Division, and the Women of Vision Award from the Weizmann Institute of Science.
In 2008, Suzanne and Bob were named in Time 100’s “Heroes and Pioneers” category for their commitment to global autism advocacy. They also received the first Double Helix Award for Corporate Leadership from Dr. James Watson and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the NYU Child Advocacy Award, the Castle Connolly National Health Leadership Award, and the American Ireland Fund Humanitarian Award. The Wrights have received honorary doctorates from St. John’s University, St. Joseph’s University and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Bob serves on the corporate advisory board of the Lustgarten Foundation, the nation’s largest private nonprofit funder of pancreatic cancer research.
Suzanne is survived by her husband of 48 years, her sister Jayne Tobin, her brothers James and Dennis Werner and three children, Catherine Anne, Christopher James, and Maggie Suzanne. A fourth child, Sarah Suzanne, died in infancy. Suzanne is also survived by six grandchildren, Christian, Mattias, Morgan, Maise, Alex and Sloan. Many aspects of her life and work are prominent in Bob Wright’s recent book, “The Wright Stuff.”