She Gave The Wright Brothers Wings

I do not think I am specially fitted for success in any commercial pursuit even if I had the proper personal and business influence to assist me. I might make a living but I doubt whether I would ever do much more than this.
— Wilbur Wright, letter to his father, 1893.

She put their dreams to flight. Katharine Wright was the third member of the team that gave us wings. While older brothers Wilbur and Orville garnered the fame they so rightfully deserve, it was Katharine whose constant encouragement helped them to soar beyond what they thought possible.

The Wright Sister

In 1901 Wilbur and Orville Wright were aeronautic adventurers-–determined dreamers who felt certain that the aerodrome (airplane) was more than a passing fancy. Their efforts caught the attention of Octave Chanute, the famed civil engineer and aeronautic enthusiast.

Chanute invited Wilbur to address the Western Society of Engineers in September of 1901. Wilbur Wright, self-taught and in the early stages of his flight experiments, was apprehensive and full of self-doubts about speaking to a group of “highly skilled and practical men.” He almost reneged on his commitment to address the society, but Katharine wouldn’t hear of it:

Will was about to refuse but I nagged him into going. He will get acquainted with some scientific men and it may do him a lot of good.
— Katherine Wright

Will’s dream may have never made it to Kitty Hawk had Katharine not prodded her brother. Instead the speaking engagement bolstered Will’s confidence, fostered more aeronautic study, and helped launch a personal friendship with the respected Chanute that would pay dividends in encouragement and help for years to come.

Katharine did more than gently push her brother. This college-educated woman who taught high school Latin and English also maintained a home for her brothers and her father.

  • She used the money from teaching Latin and Greek lessons to help fund their experiments.
  • She helped watch over their bicycle shop while they were experimenting in Kitty Hawk.
  • She served as their executive secretary as they attempted to sell their invention after receiving a patent for it in 1906.
  • She answered queries for scientific information, corresponded with newspapers and magazines helping to keep their stories straight, screened business offers and politely handled challenges associated with their new-found fame.

Katharine often put her life on hold to foster her brother’s dreams. Orville was putting on flying demonstrations for the Army when he crashed at Fort Myer, Virginia on September 17, 1908.  The accident killed passenger Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge and left Orville critically injured. Katharine immediately took a leave of absence from her teaching, left Dayton and headed to Washington to be at his bedside.

Katherine had been devotion itself. She had stayed at the hospital every night and had gone without so much sleep that [Oriville] had to remonstrate with her about it.

The strength of the sibling bonds and the dependence of the brothers can be seen in Orville’s reaction toKatharine when at 52 she told Orville that she was going to marry Henry J. Haskell, a former classmate. Orville did not attend the wedding, nor did he ever speak to her again until she was dying.

Harsh? Yes, but it also describes the powerful impact of her service she on their storied careers.

Servant Leaders Put Dreams To Flight

Katharine Wright was a “hidden hero.” Most servant leaders are. They know leadership is not about by-lines and neon signs. It is about doing what it takes to accomplish what needs doing . . . and“what it takes” is encouragement and support.

Five decades of service in the House of Representatives helped Sam Rayburn understand the demoralizing impact of criticism and negativity and the need for enthusiasm and help. The irascible speaker of the House of Representatives once said,

Any jackass can knock down a barn, it takes a skilled carpenter to build one up.
— Sam Rayburn

Katharine Wright was a “skilled carpenter.” All true servant leaders are. They understand that their behind-the-scenes words and actions can bolster hearts, build confidence, and put dreams to flight.

Is it any wonder then that God says,

Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.
— Proverbs 12:25
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
— 1 Thessalonians 5:11
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
— Hebrews 3:13

Today, donkeys will kick and barns will fall. Dreams will take flight only to come tumbling down for lack of encouragement and support. But you can count on this: amidst the dust and the dirt and the debris you will find the Katharine Wrights of this world — skilled carpenters and servant leaders — whose careful and diligent work of encouragement and support are building them back up again.

Two questions to get you “off the ground”

1. Who has helped put your dream to flight? Say “Thanks.”

2. Whose dream can you put to flight today through your encouragement?


Notes: I initially wrote this for The World Leaders Conference Servant Leadership Blog.

  1. "I do not think I am specially fitted . . ." from Young, Rosamond and Fitzgerald, Catherine. Twelve Seconds To The Moon: The Story of the Wright Brothers. Second Edition. Dayton, OH: United States Air Force Museum Foundation, Inc. 1983. Page 14.
  2. "Will was about to refuse . . . " from Tobin, James. To Conquer The Air: The Wright Brothers And The Great Race For Flight. New York: Free Press. 2003. Page 116.
  3. "She used the money . . ." from “Biography of Katharine Wright” at
  4. "She served as their executive secretary . . ." from “Katharine Wright” in
  5. "She answered queries . . . " from “Katharine Wright” in
  6. "Katharine often put her life on hold . . ." from Howard, Fred. Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. Dover Edition (1998). New York: Ballentine Books. 1988. Page 272, 275.
  7. "Katherine had been devotion itself" from Wilbur and Orville, 278
  8. "The strength of the sibling bonds . . . " from Twelve Seconds To The Moon, 152.