Wyoming is the type of place where a person — a hardworking and talented one — can go from a piccolo player to the first female general officer in the Wyoming Army National Guard.
Of course, that woman will also have to have grit.
“I’m kind of an eternal optimist who loves Wyoming,” Ret. Brigadier General Kathy J. Wright said. “I was born in Wyoming, I love Wyoming. I’ve always lived here. I like the wide open spaces, and when I travel somewhere back east or down south, I get claustrophobic because I can’t see the horizon because there are too many trees.
“When I come home and I cross the Wyoming border, and see the wide open plains, my heart just feels full,” Wright said. “And in the state of Wyoming, you can go from a piccolo player to a general.”
Wright joined the Wyoming National Guard in 1973 as a way to play the piccolo professionally after graduating from college. With a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Wyoming, she got married, had three sons and taught public school — all the while, marching with the Guard.
She was drawn to the discipline, management opportunities and leadership training afforded to those who worked for the Guard, she said, even though she was aware she’d joined at a time when the National Guard had just begun accepting women.
“I was the sixth female to be enlisted in Wyoming,” she said.
Wright was born in Sheridan, and spent her early years living in Moorcroft, Sundance, Kaycee and finally graduating high school in Guernsey. She has only sisters, and grew up with female cousins.
Her parents taught all their girls, though, that if they worked hard, they could do anything.
“Girls need to dream big. My parents never told me anything was impossible, but I had to be ready to work hard for it,” Wright said. “Sometimes you have to be persistent, be resilient.”
Wright eventually went to the Guard full-time, spending 25 years in a variety of positions including administration, operations, training and 10 years in human resources. Wright retired in December of 2013, and has been an active volunteer in several different activities, including the Wyoming Girls State program, since then.
Two of her sons went on to the Navy, and another served in the Coast Guard. Her husband served in the Marine Corps during Vietnam.
“There is a theme of service to country in our family,” she said.
Sen. Affie Ellis, who represents Laramie County, said she met Wright while volunteering for Cheyenne Frontier Days.
“She’s the kind of person who leads by example,” Ellis said. “During CFD, you’ll see Kathy serving pancakes at the crack of dawn and greeting visitors with a smile.”
In recent years, Ellis said Wright recruited her to help with Wyoming Girls State. There, the two positively impact the next generation of Wyoming women, allowing a younger generation to form connections with female leaders in their own state.
“She is genuinely invested in making Wyoming a better place, and I’m so thankful for her friendship,” Ellis said.
As former Gov. Mike Sullivan used to say, Wyoming is a small town with really long streets, Wright said.
“We have connections all over the state,” she said. “In other places, people are amazed at the familiarity and connections we have with our governor, our U.S. representatives and senators, but we all know people. Those connections allow us to influence things, to be role models and to set examples.”
Being the sixth woman to join the Army National Guard in Wyoming was not easy, and especially in the early days, Wright said she always focused on doing her job.
“Sometimes, when people would use colorful language, the response of other individuals … was to turn and look at me to see what my response was. They wanted to see if I was going to do something to correct things,” she said. “Because I didn’t let it affect me, and because I didn’t make a big deal out of it, it became a non-issue.
“When you are a female, you definitely stick out. I think that sometimes you have to work harder, but I had some good mentors and I really enjoyed what I was doing,” she said.
It was years before she even realized what she’d been up against, because she just kept moving forward. Wright was the first female to graduate from the NCO Academy, and was the first female officer in the field artillery brigade.
“I was hired full time in the field artillery brigade over some men, so that was different for some people,” she said. “We went down to Florida (years later) to the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, where all the services go to learn about equal opportunity and diversity, and I had a man say while we were in that class that they had all been watching to see if I would fail.
“You would never say that to a man,” she said. “Rather than them thinking, ‘How do we mentor this person,’ they were thinking, ‘Let’s watch and see if she fails.’ That was a person I served with for years and felt really good about, who was a person I got along with further on in my career.
“But early on, I think there were people who would watch the women to see if they would fail,” she said.
Wright also served as a commander for the Wyoming National Guard, where she was responsible for unit readiness, leadership and strategic planning to support all state and federal mission requirements assigned to the Army Guard. This included units located throughout Wyoming with more than 1,700 soldiers.
One of them was Gayle Baugh, who served as a soldier in the Guard and as a volunteer/staff counselor at Wyoming Girls State.
“Serving with Brigadier General Wright is always a significantly positive experience,” Baugh said. “She leads with genuineness that, over the course of various workplaces in my career, I’ve ever encountered only with a handful of leaders. Each encounter leaves me feeling heard, respected and my contribution to whatever mission or program or goal valued. That, I believe, makes her a most effective leader.”
For her part, Wright said she never viewed her soldiers as male or female.
“I looked at my soldiers as non-gender specific, and I tried to treat everyone equally and expect the same things from them,” she said.
Nonetheless, it’s important to seek diversity, and include women and minorities in any group, she said.
“If we are all white males in field artillery, we tend to think a lot alike,” Wright said. “That is groupthink, and bringing different perspectives together broadens the solutions. People see things from different perspectives.”
Wyoming is not as diverse as other places, but that does not mean diversity is any less important, she said.
“Because our state is conservative, and because we all look a lot alike and we have a lot of like experiences, it’s really important to practice inclusion and to seek diversity,” she said. “That is so important, and I would encourage young people male and female to be inclusive. Seek out the introverts and people who are different than you, because they will broaden your view.”
Editor’s note: On Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming territory passed the first law in United States history recognizing women’s right to vote and hold public office.
At The Sheridan Press, we are counting down to the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the Equality State with a special series inspired by the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s “Year of Wyoming Women.” Highlighting a different inspiring Wyoming woman, the features are published on the 10th of every month. Explore the full series here!