Gordon's Last Sled Ride

  • Posted on: 17 March 2015
  • By: Admin

Longtime conductor would have liked his last ride

GORDON WRIGHT: Well-known Alaskan dies of natural causes on the front porch of his cabin.

By Mike Dunham
Anchorage Daily News
Feb. 17, 2007

The body of Gordon Wright was found by friends Wednesday night on the front porch of his cabin in Rainbow Valley near Indian south of Anchorage. The longtime conductor of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra appeared to have died from natural causes, state troopers said. He was 72.

Wright lived alone in a one-room cabin off the power grid that was inaccessible by road. Friends, including this writer, brought the body out to the community parking area by sled, a quirky and utterly Alaska exit for a quirky Alaska character, a musician and a wit who, friends say, would surely have smiled at the antics and affection that accompanied his grand finale.

He was supposed to meet composer John Luther Adams of Fairbanks at Stevens International Airport on Wednesday afternoon. Adams said he became concerned when he did not find Wright waiting for him. He called Wright's friends in Rainbow, who went to the cabin and found the body about 9:45 p.m.

Wright was near his front door, under a birch tree that grows through his deck which overlooks Turnagain Arm. He was dressed for the outdoors with good boots, gloves and a warm coat. Inside, his laptop indicated he had sent his last e-mails on Sunday morning.

With assistance from an Alaska state trooper, Adams and other friends and neighbors placed the body in a pine casket that Wright used as a bench. Years ago, he had ordered it built to fit his lanky 6-foot-6 frame, and he was once carried on stage in it for a Halloween concert. But he apparently did not anticipate ending his life in such an Alaska fashion, in the middle of the forest, wearing thick-soled snow boots, not dress shoes.

After concerted efforts, his friends managed to fit him in as he had planned and, setting the box with its owner on a small plastic sled, they alternately carried and slid it about one-quarter mile in the dark over a narrow, snowy footpath to the parking area.

Moving by flashlight under the cold, starry sky, the party had to reload the coffin several times after the sled tilted on the twisting trail, losing its cargo. It finally got away from them at the end, gliding 10 feet or so onto the relatively flat road as the pallbearers helplessly slid down with it, clinging to the coffin handles and ropes. Adams called it "Gordon's last sled ride."

In the parking area, the body was loaded onto a pickup, then taken down a steep, icy switchback to the Seward Highway where personnel from Kehl's Mortuary received it early Thursday.

Wright was born on Dec. 31, 1934, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He came to Fairbanks in 1969, taught at UAF and conducted the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra until 1989. During his tenure there he presented the Alaska premieres of numerous symphonic works and championed music by Alaska composers. He composed several pieces himself.

In his later years he retired to his property near Indian, situated between two peaks of the Chugach Mountains several hundred feet above Turnagain Arm, looking across the water toward the Kenai Peninsula.

He occasionally worked as a guest conductor outside Alaska and sometimes led the Anchorage Civic Orchestra, most recently in April 2005. His last public appearance at a concert came by accident on Feb. 2 when the page turner could not get to a chamber music performance led by Wright's old friend, violinist Paul Rosenthal. Wright, who was in the audience, took on the task of flipping the pages for the pianist.

Wright's survivors include his former wife, Inga-Lisa, two sons, a daughter and a brother, all living outside Alaska. Services are pending.

Writer Mike Dunham can be reached at mdunham@adn.com

'DARK WAVES, ' a piece of music that composer John Luther Adams says was, to a significant degree, suggested by Wright, received its world premiere at the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra concert at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16 at Anchorage Concert Hall.