The 100 most influential Richmonders of the century
Movers And Shapers
Neighborhoods, politics, sports teams, shopping, parks, schools, bars and restaurants all make a city. But, in the final analysis, what gives any city distinction are its people: the big shots and the little guys.
The eve of the 21st century is an obvious time to step back and ask a question: Which individuals during the past 100 years have been most influential in shaping how Richmond looks, operates, thinks and behaves?
Who were the movers and shapers - the leaders, visionaries, entrepreneurs and benefactors without whom the city would be a different place?
Few personify these movers and shapers better than Theresa Pollak, a Richmond artist and independent spirit who lives in Henrico County. Born in 1899, she is just a few months short of having witnessed the entire century. Seventy-one years ago, educator Henry Hibbs asked her to teach an art class for 20 pupils. That class grew and became the school of the arts at Virginia Commonwealth University - today, one of the nation's leading art schools.
Some people, such as Thomas Fortune Ryan and Carter Glass, were neither born here nor ever lived here. Both hailed from western Virginia and built their reputations elsewhere - Ryan on Wall Street and Glass in the U.S. Senate. But each helped to establish Richmond institutions that are integral to the city fabric. Ryan built the glorious Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in the Fan and U.S. Senator Carter Glass was a founder of the Federal Reserve Band: He made sure that Richmond landed one of the 12 highly prestigious district headquarters.
Other efforts were more modest, but no less enduring: Virginia Randolph, a daughter of slaves who founded a public school for African-Americans on Mountain Road where she taught for 57 years. Or Thomas Cannon, a benevolent postal worker, who regularly gives much of the salary away to charity.
In some of the 100 entries, more than one person is listed because others contributed to building upon a single activity or idea. For instance, Richard S. Reynolds was a tobacco tycoon turned Wall Street investor turned industrialist. In 1938, at the height of the Depression, he moved Reynolds Metals here and grew it into one of the world's major aluminum producers. In the 1950s, his son, Richard S. Reynolds Jr., built the handsome corporate campus on West Broad Street that heralded Richmond's suburban expansion.
The movers and shapers are listed in chronologically by year of birth. The first entries included some Richmonders who grew wealthy in post-Reconstruction Richmond and shared their largesse by endowing cultural and social institutions. A parallel theme emerges: individuals of more modest means responding to pressing social issues - women's, workers' and civil rights.
Throughout the century, individual talents appear who either worked here (writers Ellen Glasgow and Patricia Cornwell) or moved on but never forgot their native city (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Tom Wolfe).
Also, civil rights and race relations are critical themes: Curtis Holt's challenge to annexation, Henry Marsh's and L. Douglas Wilder's symbolic political victories as Richmond's first African-American mayor and Virginia's first African-American governor, respectively.
As the century ends, individuals continue to respond to pressing social needs - Dr. Lisa Kaplowitz delivering care to AIDS patients in much the same spirit that earlier in the century Grace Arents provided for healthcare for urban children. Or journalist Ray Boone ensuring that other voices can be heard through his Richmond Free Press in much the way John Mitchell added an independent voice through the Richmond Planet.
What themes emerge from our 100 entries? To dispel a misconception, you obviously don't have to be a native Richmonder to make an impact here. Nearly 60 percent of those listed were born elsewhere. And for all the talk that Richmonders are still fighting the Civil War, 27 percent of those listed are not native Southerners.
Of course, any list is subjective. Some of the entries could easily represent the efforts of hundreds of others. But this roster may jog readers to think of other individuals who made indelible marks on the civic life or spirit of 20th-century Richmond - and help us all remember that one person can make a big difference.
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