What’s a Shriner?

Gary Wright exemplifies the heart of Shriner service and care

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

In Tallahassee, the Marzuq Shrine Temple sits on top of a hill that overlooks North Monroe Street and the businesses that have grown up alongside it and encompasses six counties (Jefferson, Leon, Madison, Taylor, Wakulla and Lafeyette) under its district. Since the temple’s founding in 1989, there have been many men who served in the organization’s leadership role of Potentate - one such being Monticello’s own Gary Wright.
In 1979, Gary and Anna Wright moved to Monticello from Tallahassee in order for Wright to take on the role of President and CEO of the local Farmers and Merchants Bank.
The Tallahassee Marzuq Temple has in fact only been around for 30 years and was established in part by Wright, as well as several other local Shriners.
Before Marzuq’s creation, Wright, who is a third-generation Shriner, had been a member of the temple that oversaw a district that spread from Ocala, Fla. to the Apalachicola River. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., the Morocco Temple encompassed a vast district that included Jefferson County.
Less than 10 years after Wright moved to Monticello, however, a movement within Morocco’s district began to request permission to launch a new Temple (which serves as the center-point of Shriner gatherings and activities) in the Tallahassee area.
“It was the only [state] capital in the country that didn’t have a shrine temple,” said Wright, who became involved in the movement to open Tallahassee’s Marzuq Temple.
The international Shriner organization, he says, required a thousand members to become pledged to the new temple before the group could establish their own independent temple in Tallahassee, and Wright says the movement only had 600-700 members.
“But we argued on the basis of being the only [state] capital in the country that didn’t have one, so they granted one to us,” he concluded.
To organize their new temple, there were also a couple of leadership positions that had to be filled by its pledged members. Wright filled one of those positions, putting him in line to become a potentate for the Marzuq temple.
“The potentate is like a president,” Wright explains. The one-year term provides leadership to the temple. “Potentate has a ring to it, like its some sort of big deal, and they address you with respect, as ‘Illustrious Sir’. But it’s understood that you belong to a fraternity that meets on a level and parts on a square.”
A potentate is a position granted by each level of the temple, with the local Temples as well as the national and international chapters electing an annual potentate to serve with leadership throughout the year of his term.
In 1991, two years after assisting in the founding of the Marzuq Temple, Wright was elected as the district’s potentate. While the seat of a district Potentate is the highest that can be achieved on a local level, Wright remains practical and humble about his year of service.
“One thing about the Shriners and Masons, if you think you’re a big shot, they are going to bring you down to size,” Wright comments, adding: “No one is above anyone else. No matter what your stature may be among the world, among us no one is above another one, we just have different levels of responsibility.”
Obtaining the position of a Potentate was the result of a 23-year commission and years of effort in the Shriner organization - Wright began his journey as a Shriner when he was initiated in 1968.
“My grandfather was a Shriner and my father was a Shriner,” explains Wright. “I felt a need to carry on my family tradition.”
In 1925, Wright’s grandfather began the Shriner tradition that would carry on for many years to come when he was initiated into the organization in 1925. From there, Wright’s father would be initiated in 1947 and Wright himself would follow suit in 1968.
Wright said that growing up as a young boy, he would frequently accompany his grandfather to Shriner parades and quickly became infatuated with the organization and its sense of brotherhood. It wasn’t until he was older, Wright said, that he developed a deeper love for the organization and the work it does for children.
“The philanthropic side is what has great appeal to me,” said Wright. “And to many other Shriners.”
While the Shriners are known for their world-class children’s hospitals that focus on orthopedic or burn care, Wright notes that the first Shriner hospital wasn’t built until the 1920s, some 50 years after the brotherhood’s start.
The Shriners Club, Wright said, was initially formed as a group that focused on brotherhood. But in the 1920s, the Shriners decided to put together their efforts and begin a campaign of good.
“There was not a lot of medical care for crippled children, and the Shriners took that on as a project,” adds Wright.
The first Shriners Hospital for children was built in Shreveport, La., in 1922, beginning a mission that would grow and prosper across the nation. Today, there are 21 hospitals around the United States dedicated to orthopedic care and surgeries for children or for giving the best medical treatments to young burn victims.
These hospitals are mostly funded through the donations of the Shriners as well as several Shriner widows - but Wright notes that the community around the hospitals themselves are often crucial in supporting the hospitals and medical treatments. The donations that people make to the Shriner organization helps children receive the best treatment for their orthopedic health concerns and burns.
These hospitals are entirely open to parents and their children, regardless of their ability to pay.
“There is no charge. There are no requirements from the children in terms of gender, race, religion or anything in their background,” says Wright. “It’s my favorite charity.”
“The whole thing about Shriners, everything we do is supposed to be about a big smile,” said Wright. “Because the whole idea is kids and to make kids smile, whether they are sick or not.”
Shriners are a common sight at parades - locally the Wakulla Bandits, the Perry Krazy Wheels and Hillbillly Clan, are all frequently spotted at area parades. At these parades, children cluster close to get a sight of the amusing Shriners in their costumes and unique vehicles - accomplishing the task of bringing joy to young people.
“I have belonged to lots of things and lots of organizations, I still do. But I put Shriners at the top - just under my church,” concludes Wright. “It’s certainly not perfect, but the end result, when you see the end result, it’s very impressive. I don’t think there is anything else in the country that rivals.”
In his many years of residence within Jefferson County, Wright has also been either the president, board member or chairman of the board for Jefferson County’s chamber of commerce, industrial development corporation, Kiwanis Club, Seminole Boosters and country club. He has also been a member of the Pickens Bird Camp Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare Foundation, the Community Foundation of North Florida, the Aucilla Research Institute and serves on the North Florida College’s Board of trustees.
Wright is a man of faith who attends the Christ Episcopal Church in Monticello and founded the Monticello Community Prayer Breakfast, which meets monthly to promote Christian values and allow people of faith to meet together for a session of prayer and fellowship.