"The Timeless Ambition of Tommy Wyche"« All News
August 01, 2012
The August 2012 edition of The Greenville Business Magazine featured an article written by Brandy Woods Snow entitled "The Timeless Ambition of Tommy Wyche." The full piece is included below, republished with permission from the magazine.
Lawyer. Photographer. Author. Inventor. Musician. Champion tennis player. Conservationist. Supporter of the arts. Son, husband, father, grandfather. Visionary. Facilitator. Pioneer. Leader. There are a slew of epithets that can be used to define Tommy Wyche’s 86 years, but if you ask him, he’d just as soon skip all that and focus on the matter at hand.
You see, Wyche is one of those rare gems – one of those great civic-minded individuals who doesn’t hesitate opening up his mind, heart, or pocketbook for the betterment of the community. He’s always preferred to work diligently and strategically in fulfilling his vision of what Greenville could be. Even in those days when the city didn’t appear to have a chance to recover from its downward spiral, Wyche saw the potential within the heart of downtown and refused to let it slip away. He amassed the land, the resources and the people needed to make it possible no matter how long it took, tirelessly working to breathe life into his dreams. Wyche’s lengthy list of achievements throughout his career reads like a job description for a modern day Renaissance Man – someone accomplished in intellectual, physical and artistic pursuits – and though many in Greenville have heard his name, met him face to face or worked with him in some capacity over the years, there are many more who do not know the true extent to which Tommy Wyche has shaped and molded our city. And frankly, Wyche likes it that way because he’s always desired the focus and attention to be on Greenville. He simply says, “I love Greenville. It’s my home, and I want to help it along.”
And help it along he has. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the revitalization of downtown Greenville as well as the protection of the pristine, untarnished natural beauty of the Blue Ridge escarpment that we enjoy would not have been possible without the foresight of Wyche. But more than vision, he also brought action and the ability to connect the dots to see his plans to fruition. “Dad has that rare combination of being both a visionary and someone very attentive to details,” says Brad Wyche, Tommy’s son and Executive Director of Upstate Forever. “Not many have the ability and the foresight to look decades into the future and see what could be. Riverplace is a terrific example of that – he worked on that project for more than 25 years before seeing its completion.”
Wyche grew up in Greenville’s Augusta Road area. After graduating from Greenville High School, he went on to Princeton, but due to military service in the U.S. Navy, had to complete his education at Yale, earning an undergraduate engineering degree in 1946. He went on to earn his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1949. He subsequently moved home to Greenville and joined the law practice founded by his father Granville Wyche, where he has proudly practiced for more than 60 years. During that time, Wyche has concentrated on a number of practice areas, including commercial real estate, corporate law, economic incentives, environmental and sustainability, mergers and acquisitions, securities and corporate finance and tax, while also becoming one of the most influential and active leaders in Greenville.
“Tommy Wyche is why I came to this firm. The Wyche law firm’s reputation has always been highly regarded, and I’d heard Tommy was one of the smartest, most creative business lawyers around,” says Marshall Winn, a firm attorney. “He’s always told us that there are many sophisticated legal needs in this town and working here has been interesting, challenging and fun.”
Winn continues, “Tommy doesn’t micro-manage or give advice. He leads by example. He’s always emphasized how important it is for all of us lawyers to work together and contribute to the community. He finds really good people and then trusts them to do their job, and he’s created a working environment where we all feel like friends and family.”
“Dad’s a brilliant lawyer,” says Brad Wyche. “He’s adept at handling any and all kinds of complicated legal issues, and it’s this expertise that has helped him to not only have a successful practice but to also navigate the ins and outs of his revitalization and conservation projects.”
Indeed, Wyche has been a catalyst for much of the change we’ve witnessed in Greenville over the past decades. “Tommy will come up with an idea, figure out how to implement it and then assemble the right people to take the helm,” says Winn. “He develops the plans and then makes things happen.”
“Ever since I have known Tommy, beginning in 1960, he has focused on improving the quality of life in Greenville and preserving his beloved wilderness,” says James “Poss” Parham, a firm attorney. “In addition to his amazing achievements in these things, his personal qualities are rare. He is unflappable, no matter what the circumstances, unpretentious and modest in the extreme, ever gracious and pleasant, good natured and generous in every way.”
Wyche has championed the arts in Greenville throughout his career, providing countless hours of legal work for local arts groups. In 1965, he served as the first chairman of the Greenville Arts Festival, now nationally-known as Artisphere. Also during the ‘60’s, he was a principal leader in the development of the Heritage Green campus, which now houses a variety of museums, galleries, theaters and the county main library. In the 1970’s, when downtown really begin to deteriorate, it was Wyche, working in conjunction with Buck Mickel and then-mayor Max Heller, who hatched a plan to reinvent and revive Main Street in a first-step to rejuvenating the entire downtown area. He knew it was going to take imaginative, out-of-the-box efforts, but, after all, that’s where Wyche has always excelled.
Wyche wanted to recruit a major hotel to downtown as an anchor for the creation of a vibrant city center. Through his connections with the Hyatt chain of hotels and his pioneering move to implement South Carolina’s first-ever horizontal property regime, Greenville Commons was established. The hotel not only brought in a reputation of excellence to the Greenville market but also offered convention facilities, a restaurant, and office space. The Hyatt Regency became a landmark on Main Street and kicked off a spirit of renewal in the heart of the city center.
At his expense, Wyche brought in a design firm who, once retained, developed a master plan for downtown’s transformation – a plan that focused not only on bringing in business but also on increasing the public’s exposure to the arts through streetscaping and sculptures, the construction of the Liberty Bridge and a water sculpture designed by Wyche himself. He also dreamed of creating a major performing arts center in downtown in order to transform the cultural profile of the city. After providing legal assistance to Greenville’s Peace family in a lucrative business deal, Wyche urged David Freeman to meet with the civic-minded family to discuss funding the project, and he took the initiative to meet with the city regarding the donation of the land. Wyche contributed legal expertise, raised funding and made personal contributions to help make the Peace Center come to life. This public-private collaboration facilitated by Wyche is a testament to his vision and relentless dedication to the public good.
Another Wyche-inspired project built upon public-private collaboration is RiverPlace. “Tommy had been working on this idea for a long time before it ever came about,” says Bob Hughes, President of Hughes Development Corp., who led the design and construction. “It took him 25 years to accumulate the property on which it was constructed, but he never gave up on the vision, and Greenville has received accolades for this unique mixed-use development.” Wyche envisioned RiverPlace as an artist-friendly establishment that would be a key gathering place and cultural center to the city, and made two conditions on the development: first that the complex would include ample studio space for local artists with rents below market rates and second the incorporation of a water feature for public enjoyment.
“Tommy has always been sought after for his business acumen, in legal matters and beyond. He’s known for his keen insight on structuring businesses, assessing every angle of a project and the art of the deal,” says Winn. “Anyone with a business idea made it a priority to seek out Tommy’s expertise.”
Wyche built the law firm’s current building on Camperdown Way when the Reedy River Falls, an old cotton mill site, was considered to be one of Greenville’s least desirable places. “Tommy noticed the 30-foot bank on the north side of the Reedy River and had one of his brilliant conceptions. He bought the parcel from C&S Bank, and invited construction companies to dump waste dirt and stones there. When the fill became substantial enough, Wyche called on his architect-friend Kirk Craig to design what for the time was a cutting-edge concept for a law firm, open and egalitarian. Wyche had vision and was a driving force behind the development and beautification of Falls Park and in the establishment of the Governor’s School on the site overlooking the Reedy River. Now, each attorney at Wyche boasts an eagle-eye view of the falls from their own office. “The Wyche offices are indicative of the firm’s philosophy and a true reflection of Tommy,” says Winn. “We all have an immediate link to nature, and that has been a significant element in the foundation of his career and passions in life.”
To that end, perhaps the venture Wyche holds most dear to his heart is his conservation work in the Blue Ridge escarpment. After a 1972 trip to Los Angeles where he witnessed how they’d developed up the mountainsides, Wyche knew he had to take action to protect the natural assets of the Upstate.
“Dad’s trip to L.A. was an epiphany for him. He’d always loved the mountains here, and then he saw how development had devastated the mountains in that region. He arrived home with a mission—not to let that happen to our mountains” says Brad Wyche.
In 1973, Wyche founded Naturaland Trust, one of the Southeast’s oldest conservation land trusts. The non-profit has helped to preserve tens of thousands of acres of foothills and mountain lands including the Jocassee Gorges, Raven Cliff Falls, Jones Gap State Park, Caesar’s Head State Park and many more. Wyche “put in the shoe leather,” going sometimes from home to home in an effort to educate landowners about the need to conserve our wilderness. “I was always respectful of the landholder. I knew I needed to help them understand the need for conservation while also demonstrating an economic benefit to them,” says Wyche. Naturaland Trust drafted legislation authorizing government agencies to grant conservation easements that, when incorporated into property deeds, help to limit development on properties while retaining private ownership and access. Wyche’s work in wilderness preservation has been regionally and nationally revered for his protection of unspoiled lands as well as his work and funding in the creation of many carefully planned viewing platforms, bridges and trails throughout the area.
Wyche is an accomplished photographer and has published several books that feature his nature photography, including: South Carolina’s Mountain Wilderness – The Blue Ridge Escarpment; The Blue Wall – Wilderness of the Carolinas and Georgia; Mosaic – 21 Special Places in the Carolinas; Cycles of Nature; Quiet Reflections; and Conserve A Legacy. In its fourth edition is Guide to the Mountain Bridge Trails, which describes the trails that Wyche himself sited and then were built by high school and college students over the course of several summers.
Additionally, Wyche has held key roles and board positions in many Greenville organizations, including the Chamber, the YMCA, the Arts Festival, the Little Theater, the Symphony Association, the Governor’s School and many more. His work has earned him three Honorary Doctorate degrees from Clemson, Furman and Wofford, and he also holds three U.S. patents. Wyche has been recognized regionally and nationally for his tireless efforts in conservation and other accomplishments, being awarded the Nature Conservancy Oak Leaf Award, the Alexander Calder Conservation Award, the American Bar Association Award for Excellence in Environmental and Resource Stewardship, and the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Lifetime Achievement Award from the S.C. Arts Commission to name a few. He was selected by Governor Beasley in 1996 as an Order of the Palmetto recipient and was asked the same year to carry the Olympic Torch as it came through Greenville.
Wyche was recognized with a Senate Resolution during the 119th Session of the South Carolina General Assembly adopted on February 1, 2011, to “recognize and honor [Wyche] of Greenville, distinguished attorney, civic leader and environmentalist, for his tireless work spanning more than forty years to conserve the natural beauty of the lands and waters of South Carolina.” Senator David Thomas, a sponsor of the bill, says Wyche is an inspiration to many South Carolinians and a testament to what can be accomplished through hard work and dedication.
“The commitment of Tommy Wyche has always stood out to me,” says Senator Thomas. “His leadership is remarkable, and he is highly revered in the community. He has been the driving force behind so many of Greenville’s major projects, and his commitment has spanned decades. It’s not only his drive but his style of leadership that makes people want to work with him. He is a visionary.”
But, despite all of his success, Wyche remains humble and insists on deflecting any attention to himself. “Tommy is the embodiment of the old adage, ‘There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit,’” says Winn. “He’s never sought after accolades or recognition for anything, and he’s extremely uncomfortable with the attention.”
“I don’t know anyone with the combination of raw talent and intelligence along with training in legal and business matters like Tommy,” says Parham. “He has an unassuming nature and is unwilling to claim credit for the amazing role he’s played in our area, but no one has contributed as much to Greenville as Tommy.”
“My tenacity has been a key to my success,” says Wyche. “I stick with projects for a long time – sometimes over years – if I really believe in it. I want the younger generations to recognize that it takes a long time and a lot of effort to make things happen. You have to persevere and be in it through the long haul.” Still, there is an obvious lesson to be learned from what Wyche didn’t say: you work toward something because you love it, always putting the success of the venture ahead of personal fame and wealth.
And, from talking with Wyche, it’s easy to see that one of the reasons he works so hard is because he truly loves life and wants to live it to the fullest. “Having him as a father definitely has made my life richer. He was involved in so much and he introduced my sisters and me to all of it – from his community endeavors to his love of nature to sports and music. He never forced us in one particular direction but always encouraged us to experience different things,” says Brad Wyche. “He always had time for his family despite his busy schedule, and there was never a dull moment, whether it was canoeing the Chattooga River, backpacking on the Appalachian Trail or playing in father-son tennis tournaments.”
Wyche has also taken some exciting outdoor trips, including two two-week backpacking trips to Alaska; a 320-mile canoe trip with his daughter from the Atlantic Ocean up St. Mary’s River through the Okefenokee Swamp and down the Suwanee River to the Gulf of Mexico; and a three-week trek in Nepal where he climbed to Lake Tellicho at an altitude of 15,600 feet above sea level.
Now sitting across from him, I see that he might be on the trail of a new, yet much milder, adventure. The copy of Internet for Dummies on his desk suggests Wyche has another side project up his sleeve. “I’m learning the web,” he says, smiling widely. Recently, he’s had to give up his tennis game but still enjoys keeping fit by going to the Y on a regular basis. When asked about any short-term goals, he simply says, “more of the same” and states he has no intentions of retiring and plans to stay working in support of his conservation efforts as long as his health allows.
“I hope the future generations will continue to protect our natural resources – the mountains, the waters, the landscapes,” says Wyche. “But as for my legacy - when you’re gone, you’re gone.”