By Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89
Ten days before her grandfather’s celebration of life, Caroline Allen Campbell received a call from her mother, Ashley Richardson Allen, relaying one of her grandfather’s last wishes.
It was early evening, and she and her young daughters were walking the family dog around their neighborhood. The 5-year-old was pedaling a bicycle with training wheels. The 3-year-old was in a costume. The dog was eager to move at a brisker pace. Campbell literally had her hands full when she learned that she and her brother, Luke Richardson Allen, had been asked to deliver the first two eulogies at the celebration of life for Jerry Richardson ’59 on March 18, 2023. He died at the age of 86 on March 1.
“In that moment, my life could not have been more juxtaposed,” says Campbell, who stopped, made sure she heard her mother correctly then immediately responded, “I won’t let him down.” Her next thoughts were where to start for a man who seemed larger than life to most who knew him. She began recalling sensory memories from her childhood even before she arrived back at home. Then she called her siblings, Luke, Matt and Hannah, to collect their stories as well.
“I wanted to work their voices into what I wrote,” says Campbell. “I carry a picture in my purse of him holding me when I was about 4 years old. I remember thinking, even at that age. I like it when this one picks me up. I can see over everybody. The picture is from somewhere in Spartanburg, and I’m in a red dress, and he’s in a black suit.”
She used all of that as inspiration to begin the story of Jerry Richardson, a story told thousands of times but never from this perspective.
“He chose to be remembered first as a grandparent,” says Campbell.
“To me, he wasn’t the Jerry Richardson most people knew,” says Luke Allen. “We had the same special relationship lots of grandchildren have with a grandparent. Mine just happened to be Jerry Richardson.”
Five people gave eulogies during the service, which was held in the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium on Wofford’s campus. Former Carolina Panther linebacker Thomas Davis, Wofford President Emeritus Joe Lesesne and sportscaster Jim Gray all shared stories of Jerry, JJR, Big Cat or Mr. Richardson. Campbell and Allen talked about their memories of Honey, a name that stuck from a greeting between Richardson and Campbell, his first grandchild. She and Luke Allen painted a picture of Richardson as the family’s live oak tree with roots that stretched deep into the Carolina soil and branches that sheltered and soared far beyond his humble beginnings.
“He made enormous anonymous gestures, and I’ve learned from him that you don’t always have to draw attention to yourself and your actions.”
— CAROLINE ALLEN CAMPBELL
It’s a metaphor that many in the audience understood because of the sheer magnitude of his influence.
Campbell and Luke Allen’s portrait of their grandfather included family beach trips and good-natured mischief. Moon pies. Chicken biscuits. Sweet tea. Pickup games in the backyard. Competition. Honest advice. Handwritten notes. Eye contact. Handshakes. The importance of loyalty and gratitude.
Both Campbell and Luke Allen shared how he worked hard and believed in watering the roots of home and family and working harder than everyone else in business.
“One of the best pieces of advice he gave me was that he got to be Jerry Richardson (an inductee in the North and South Carolina Business Hall of Fame, founding owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and one of the country’s top philanthropists in higher education) by being himself,” says Luke Allen. “When I was unsure, he told me to be Luke Allen, to be myself. He said that would be good enough.”
According to Luke Allen, Richardson was a process person. At his core, he wanted to understand how things worked and why people made the choices they made or did the things they did.
“Neither of us are complicated people,” says Luke Allen, who said he and his grandfather could communicate with a look or smile. “I think that’s one of the reasons we had such a special relationship.”
Luke Allen and Campbell both have memories of their grandparents, Rosalind and Jerry Richardson, and then their parents, Ashley and Steve Allen, hosting dinners, originally on Wednesday nights, for football, basketball and baseball teams.
“When I got to high school, my parents would invite my teammates to the house for a meal,” says Luke Allen. “What I thought was just bringing the team together to build camaraderie was really a lesson in family and the tradition of hospitality and support that started with my grandparents. I didn’t understand what I was a part of at the time.”
Now Luke Allen is a leader in the Wofford Terrier Club, and Allen and Campbell are both heavily involved in their communities. Their grandfather is no longer a physical presence, but they each proudly carry his legacy.
“I hit every branch on the way out of the family tree,” says Campbell, who uses the words stubborn, fiercely loyal, observant, perceptive, ambitious and generous to describe inherent Richardson qualities. “I also see my Honey in both of my children’s brown eyes. They’re the only grandchildren or great grandchildren with his eyes.”
Luke Allen said his grandfather only shared the story of his childhood with him once.
“He never forgot where he came from and the people who helped him along the way,” says Luke Allen. “In the weeks since his death, I’ve heard story after story from people who have contacted me to talk about what he meant to them.”
People from all over the country and from every walk of life came to Wofford for the celebration of life and to offer their condolences to the family.
“In addition to all of the evidence and firsthand accounts of how he helped and encouraged people, there are 10 times as many people no one will ever know about,” says Campbell. “He made enormous anonymous gestures, and I’ve learned from him that you don’t always have to draw attention to yourself and your actions.”
Luke Allen says he will miss everything about his grandfather. “My way of honoring him will be to continue to work to provide my son with similar structure and tradition, teaching him the same things. For family … for Wofford … we definitely need to keep working to fill his shoes.”
“He never forgot where he came from and the people who helped him along the way.”
— LUKE RICHARDSON ALLEN
Jerry Richardson ’59 and Bob Prevatte ’50 shared a lifelong bond that was forged on a football field in Fayetteville, N.C. Prevatte was an assistant coach and Richardson was a talented seventh grader when they first met.
“Growing up, he had to work like hell just to get by,” says Prevatte, who turned 98 in early April. “And he did, every day. I don’t know any boy who worked harder to improve himself than Jerry Richardson.”
After four years, Prevatte moved on to become head coach at Gaffney High and began a legendary run, winning 129 games and five state championships in 14 seasons. Although he was no longer his high school coach, Prevatte was the person Richardson turned to when he was looking for a college where he could get an education and play football.
Prevatte drove to Fayetteville to pick up Richardson in a Rambler station wagon for that first visit to Wofford. On campus, they met Coach Conley Snidow before heading back to Fayetteville. The 30 cents in Prevatte’s pocket was the only money they had between them, so they shared a soft drink and a pack of crackers on the 200-mile drive home.
“I told Snidow that Richardson was a great athlete who came to play every day,” Prevatte says. “They knew what they were getting.”
Richardson arrived at Wofford in 1954 as an unheralded wide receiver with a one-fourth football scholarship. He set three team records that still stand (single-game record with 241 receiving yards, nine touchdown receptions in a season and most touchdowns in a career with 21), led the Terriers as team captain and was a two-time All-American before two seasons of professional football. His successful career in business included getting Spartan Food Systems on the New York Stock Exchange before he was 40 years old.
“Coming to Wofford in 1954 as an 18-year-old with a partial scholarship was a turning point in my life,” said Richardson in 2021 after making a $150 million gift to the college’s endowment. “It is difficult to put into words how grateful I am for that opportunity and how proud I am of the tremendous progress the college has made since then. My hope is that many more young people will now be able to aim high regardless of their background or financial means.”
Prevatte checked in on Richardson during his time at Wofford, and Richardson checked in with him. It became a regular occurrence throughout their lifetimes.
“He’d call me and say he wanted my opinion on something. When I’d hear his voice on the phone, I’d ask him what he had gotten into now,” Prevatte says with a laugh.
Prevatte retired from coaching in 1969 and went to work for Richardson at Spartan Foods in 1971, rising to executive vice president before retiring in 1987.
Richardson honored Prevatte in 1988 with a gift to Limestone University in Gaffney to have its baseball field named for him. Richardson later gave $4.1 million to Limestone for construction of the Bob Prevatte Athletic Complex, which was dedicated in 2018.
Richardson checked in on his old coach for the last time about five months ago. They talked about the old times, and they talked about Wofford athletics.
“Jerry Richardson was one of the finest men I know,” Prevatte says. “He was like a son to me.”
Over the years, Jerry Richardson openly talked about the impact that Wofford College had on his life after he arrived on campus in 1954 as an 18-year-old with a partial scholarship to play football.
He spent the rest of his life making an impact on Wofford College. Richardson died March 1, 2023. He was 86.
“Mr. Richardson’s impact on Wofford College is immeasurable. I know of no one more generous with his time, wisdom and resources,” says Dr. Nayef Samhat, president of Wofford College. “While his gifts to the college and other organizations throughout the Carolinas are legendary, I will forever remember him for his quiet generosity and the gifts that didn’t capture headlines. So many have him to thank for kindnesses large and small. Our community sends condolences to Mrs. Richardson and his family. We will miss him greatly.”
Richardson, a Wofford trustee emeritus, mentored students and alumni while making game-changing financial contributions to the college.
His lifetime giving to Wofford exceeded $270 million, including a $150 million gift to the college’s endowment in 2021. That gift focused on four areas:
- Need-based financial aid impacting hundreds of students each year.
- Experiential learning opportunities for students with financial need.
- An initiative that transitioned the college’s support staff to a minimum wage of $15 per hour.
- A special fund for the maintenance, repair and improvement of campus buildings.
Earnings from the gift will continue in perpetuity and will forever influence the college.
The Richardsons have supported 14 capital projects since 1979, and 36 students have benefited from the Richardson Family Scholarship, which provides a full four-year scholarship to one student in each class. The scholarship includes books, a laptop, paid internships and a monthlong study abroad experience.
Richardson never forgot his humble beginnings. He kept a photo in his Charlotte, N.C., office of his childhood home in Spring Hope. There was no running water nor electricity. His father was a barber; his mother worked in a women’s clothing store. They didn’t have a car until Richardson was 16 years old. When Richardson enrolled at Wofford, he depended on his football scholarship and on a $30-a-month job as a resident assistant. His childhood experiences stayed with him and shaped his philanthropy with an emphasis on providing opportunities through education.
As a student, Richardson was a member of Kappa Alpha Order, president of the Inter- Fraternity Council, and a member of Blue Key National Honor Fraternity and Scabbard and Blade military fraternity. He was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the 13th round of the NFL draft after his junior year, but he was determined to finish his degree and complete his college football career with the Terriers. After graduation, Richardson played two seasons in the NFL, earning Colts Rookie of the Year honors in 1959 and catching a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in the 1959 Championship game.
Richardson then embarked on a successful business career with his Wofford teammate, Charlie Bradshaw. Opening the first Hardee’s franchise in Spartanburg, he and Bradshaw co-founded Spartan Food Systems. Richardson later was the CEO of Flagstar, which was the sixth largest food service company in the nation.
On Oct. 26, 1993, Richardson became the first former NFL player since George Halas to become an owner when the Carolinas were unanimously awarded the NFL’s 29th franchise. The Carolina Panthers began play in 1995 and reached the NFC Championship game in the 1996 season. The Panthers won the NFC Championship in 2003 and 2015, advancing to Super Bowls in 2004 and 2016. The team has held training camp at Wofford since its inception.
Richardson is the only person to be inducted into both the North Carolina and South Carolina Business and Athletic Halls of Fame.
Throughout his life, he treasured being named the Wofford football team’s captain in 1958 as one of the greatest honors in his life. The college retired his No. 51 jersey in 2011. Richardson was named an Associated Press Little All-America selection in 1957 and 1958. Three of his records as a wide receiver still stand for the Terrier football team.
RICHARDSON WOFFORD TIMELINE
At the time of his death on March 1, 2023, Jerry Richardson ’59 was one of 118 donors with 45 years or more of consecutive giving to Wofford College. His lifetime philanthropy to Wofford exceeded $270 million.
Detailed giving records before 1979 were damaged, but Richardson’s donations to the college totaled $62,376.09 by that year. His financial contributions to Wofford since 1979 are listed on 246 lines of a spreadsheet, but his contributions extended well past those entries.
A timeline of highlights from his engagement with the college gives a sense of his impact, but thanks to his gifts to the endowment and his example of service, there is no limit to the positive influence his life and legacy will have on Wofford College and the students who benefit from his generosity.