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Noble: Business leaders in small town S.C.
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It is often said South Carolina is a big small town where everyone knows everyone else. And if we don’t know someone personally, then it’s usually “I know who they are.”

Growing up in a small Southern town, we all generally knew who the “successful” people were, and we also knew about the one or two people that were really successful; they were in a class by themselves. When we saw them on the street, they had a certain air about them; they always seemed to be just a little bit reserved and they were universally treated with respect. People tended to defer to their ideas and opinions.

In short, they were leaders. Nobody had officially designated them as such, that’s just who they were and everyone recognized it.

More often than not, their position was largely attributable to some combination of their personal character and their business or professional success. They often ran the major business or company in the area, they headed or sat on the board of the bank and they were elders and deacons in the local church.

When something good for the community needed doing, they were usually there. When there was an exceptionally bright or talented young person in the community that had “lesser means,” these community leaders often saw to it that they had what they needed to go to college and develop their potential. They usually did these things quietly without a lot of show.

And by both temperament and instinct, they were progressive, not in the modern political sense of left or right, but progressive in, generally, they believed in progress. They believed their commitment and actions could do things to help their community and state progress -- progress to simply get better. And they would work to make it happen.

To some, this may all just seem like just a hazy, nostalgic indulgence about the small town paternalism of the past, but it is not. It is about the here and now; it’s about a few very special South Carolina business leaders of today and their commitment to make a better, more “progressive” future for our state.

It’s about the S.C. Business Hall of Fame and their work to support Junior Achievement.

Recently, they held their 31st annual banquet, where two new laureates, Hugh Lane Jr. and Joseph Blanchard, were inducted into the Hall of Fame -- more on them later. The banquet was an elegant black-tie affair (though as a member of the working press, I tried to get by with just a coat and tie.) Since its founding in 1985, more than 100 laureates have been recognized, and, this evening, the words most often used to describe those laureates, present and past, were: accomplishment, visionary, innovative, core values, integrity and passionate community engagement.

These were men and women whose life and work has had an enormous impact on our state and nation. Historic figures such as global financier Bernard Baruch, architect Robert Mills, agronomist Eliza Lucas Pinkney; and modern business giants like Jerry Zucker, Martha Rivers Ingraham, Darla Moore and Jerry Richardson.

The laureates were South Carolinians with local businesses and local roots -- not transplant executives from big multi-national companies who tend to be here today and gone tomorrow. And it was striking how many laureates were from the same families, often going back several generations -- the Hipps, Cokers and Walls; the Springs/Close family; the Mikel/Shaw family; the Long/Way family; and others.

And in keeping with this tradition, one of this year’s laureates, Hugh Lane Jr., is the son of Hugh Lane Sr., one of the original laureates selected in 1985. Lane Jr., like his father, is a banker who cares passionately about his community and especially education, having made major personal and financial contributions not only in his native Charleston but to institutions all over the state. Perhaps his greatest legacy will be his and his brother Charles’s leadership in the creation of the 250,000 acre Ace Basin National Wildlife Refuge.

Joe Blanchard is another great example of the proud history of the laureates’ combination of business, family and service. Joe’s father started their heavy machinery and equipment business and it now includes Joe’s sons. The family’s commitment to service, especially in the arts, education and the Midlands regions has been an inspiration to many others.

And education and inspiration is what Junior Achievement is all about -- teaching financial literacy, entrepreneurship and work readiness to new generations of South Carolinians. While the overwhelming majority of past laureates have been male, white and native born, like our state’s future, most of the 20,000 young people served this year by JA are not.

What makes the laureates and JA so special is they have managed to combine both a historic, multi-generational tradition of personal commitment and shared roots with the new mission of developing the next generation of business leaders who will, by design, look very different -- in sex, race and nationality -- from the previous laureates. In short, they are “honoring the best to inspire the next.”

This rare combination of history and future, continuity and change, is what makes this group of South Carolinians -- and South Carolina itself -- so special.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)