Phyllis Wright Thomas (1930–2023)

Posted on 16. Jul, 2023 by in Uncategorized

It’s been a sad week for us here at the Doug Wright Awards since learning last Sunday, July 9th, that we’d lost Phyllis Wright Thomas, the widow of Doug Wright, at the age of ninety-three.

We often referred to Phyllis as our biggest supporter, and that wasn’t hyperbole. Along with allowing us to use her late husband’s name, characters, and artwork to symbolize the Canadian comics industry as a whole, Phyllis attended nearly every Doug Wright Awards ceremony. And when COVID, and later her declining health, prevented her from being with us in person, she taught herself how to tune in on YouTube so she wouldn’t miss a thing. It won’t be the same not having her there in the front row, or least being able to give her a wave through the screen. 

Below are two reminisces of Phyllis from Brad Mackay and Seth, the co-founders of the Doug Wright Awards and the editors of the two-volume Collected Doug Wright. As Seth mentions, Phyllis wasn’t just Doug Wright’s wife in real life, but also his cartoon wife. So further down we’ve included a Phyllis-centric strip from Doug Wright’s Family.
Thanks, Phyllis.

I’ve known for a while now that I was eventually going to have to write this eulogy, but I always dismissed the thought from my mind as quickly as it appeared. At first, I chalked that up to my chronic allergy of deadlines—a common side effect of twenty-odd years working as a freelance writer. But in hindsight, I think it’s obvious that I simply didn’t want to acknowledge that one day I was going to have to live in a world without Phyllis.  

I first met Phyll (I hope she’d forgive me for referring to her so informally here, but this was what those close to her called her, and I’m feeling very close to her right now) in 2003, when I drove with Peter Birkemoe to her home in Tillsonburg, Ontario, to discuss the idea of naming a then nascent (if I’m being honest, very nascent) Canadian comics awards organization in honour of her late husband. 

I had talked to her only briefly a couple of times on the phone, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. When we arrived a tad late, she greeted us at the door, welcomed us in, and served us sandwiches and homemade soup for lunch. I was utterly charmed. 

God knows what she thought of us. 

I believe Seth was originally supposed to come with me, but something last minute came up and Peter stepped in to be my emotional support (and now that I think about it, maybe to ensure I didn’t screw anything up).     

She was very kind and listened to our pitch, but I could sense skepticism. I don’t blame her. Her husband had been gone for twenty years at that point and was quickly dissipating from the cultural zeitgeist. And I was a general assignment reporter with not much to show for my then young newspaper career, not to mention zero experience in building and running an awards org … and where was the infamous Seth anyway?

But, after an hour or so spent listening to our plans she warmed up to the idea, then asked us if we wanted to look at some of Doug’s scrapbooks and original art. Looking back on it now, this was probably her way of showing me that I passed the test. 

The rest is history. An amateurish inaugural awards ceremony (with embarrassingly filthy washrooms), getting to know her many family members (her sons, Bill, Jim, and Ken Wright, and her granddaughter, Kim), all of whom she was tremendously proud of), many better ceremonies, and the publication of the first volume of The Collected Doug Wright.

About those ceremonies. Phyllis attended almost all of them, to the point where I think she genuinely looked forward to the evening. Who was hosting this year? Where will it be? Will her daughter Clara be there? These were some of the questions she peppered me with in the weeks before the big night. This, despite having to endure a fair share of outrageous—and frankly lewd—on-stage jokes and comments, a reality of live events. 

But she never once complained, walked out, or threatened to remove Doug’s name from the awards. Her reaction was usually, “Well, that was interesting.” And there she was the next year, asking me about the show and who was going to be our host. So, I want to thank her for trusting us and being a good sport during the past two decades. (I’m not sure that Doug, if he was still around, would have been as patient and forgiving.)    

For a long time, I felt like the Doug Wright Awards and The Collected Doug Wright were the concrete rewards for all the work I’d spent honouring and restoring Doug’s legacy. But it’s clear to me now that I overlooked the true reward: getting to really know, and love, Phyllis. 

I think I’ll feel adrift without her being around. She was always something of an anchor for me and for the awards—a living link to an unknowable man who has played a significant role in my life and career. 

One final story. 

The last time I talked with Phyll was in May, not long after this year’s awards ceremony. She had just moved out of her apartment, in Burlington, Ontario, and into a nearby nursing home so she could access daily medical care, including rehabilitation sessions to help her recover from a recent stroke. 

She was as sharp and clear-headed as always, and told me that the day before the young woman who had come to do her rehab had noticed the framed original Doug Wright’s Family strips hanging on her walls, and after admiring them asked her, “Did you know him?”

“Know him? I was married to him!” 

We had a good laugh about that one. 

—Brad Mackay        

Phyllis Wright Thomas was someone I admired. She made an immediate impression. I first met her many years ago, when Chris Oliveros, Brad Mackay, and I made the pilgrimage down to Tillsonburg, Ontario, to discuss the possibility of making a book about her late husband Doug. I didn’t know what to expect of her. I suppose I imagined some demure little old lady. Far from it.
Phyllis was a commanding presence. I do not mean that in any rude way. Often when people speak in terms of eulogy, phrases like that are code words meaning someone was difficult. Phyllis was not difficult. Quite the opposite. Approachable, kind, helpful, engaged. And she had gravity—forthright, direct, unsentimental, a doer. The kind of person who makes a decision and then gets down to the details and makes it happen. Perhaps that sounds too businesslike. I wouldn’t limit her in that manner. She had such a smiling quality about her too. Sweet. Funny. Over the many years I knew her she took Brad and me under her wing, a bit like a mother hen. And between the three of us we often joked about this, enjoying our roles as adopted sons.
When I look over this list of qualities I have assigned her, I see they match well with the cartoon qualities of the mother in Doug Wright’s Family. It was never any secret that the family in Doug’s cartoon was, of course, his own family. The only difference between the cartoon family and the real one was a third son. I’m sure Doug simply understood that two boys were more than enough characters for the strip. So, while Bill Wright was undoubtedly Nipper, Jim and Ken got to share being the little brother. And Phyllis, well, Phyllis was the mother. You can’t help but see it when you’ve known her. An active force in that cartoon household. Handling everything. But nurturing too. And yes, the occasional explosion. I never knew Phyllis to get angry in my presence, but it’s not like I couldn’t have imagined it. She struck me as someone to be reckoned with. All this leads to me say something very old fashioned: She was a lady. The kind of lady I associate with the old Canada of my childhood—gracious, straight-forward, no nonsense.
Some folks get old and their death is often stated as “not a surprise.” I suppose that should be the feeling I have about Phyllis’s passing, I mean, she was over ninety years old. And yet, I cannot dismiss her death so simply. She presented as decades younger. At her ninetieth birthday party, she was striding around and working that roomful of guests like a much younger woman. She was one of those folks who seem destined to live forever. So her passing hurts. I loved that lady. I will miss her.


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