Community leader Tom Black dies at 81

Black was 'was one of those people who made sure it happened'

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 9, 2014 

Tom Black

To call Tom Black a longtime Columbus business, civic and philanthropic leader doesn’t begin to touch his reach into the community and beyond, said retired Columbus State University President Frank Brown.

“It is a statement of fact,” Brown said. “But it is almost not an adequate way to describe him. He was aggressively supportive of everything he touched. He was one of those people who made sure it happened.”

Black died Wednesday morning after a lengthy illness. He was 81.

A celebration of Black’s life will be held Friday at 11 a.m. in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, an institution his family joined shortly after they moved to Columbus in 1968. A visitation with the family will follow the service.

Black was a Knoxville, Tenn., native who came to Columbus as a manager for Tom’s Foods, where he later became a key executive. He was an active leader in many institutions, including Columbus State University, United Way, Brookstone School, First Baptist Church of Columbus and Mercer University in Macon.

First Baptist Pastor Jimmy Elder has known Black for nearly three decades.

“He was a moral and spiritual presence in the lives of so many people because he was such an example,” Elder said. “I knew him first by reputation, second as a trustee at Mercer where he showed me the ropes, then as a Baptist statesman and, finally, as his pastor.”

Black retired from Tom’s Foods as chief operating officer in 1986 and purchased two Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores with his son-in-law, Jay Sparks. He owned those businesses until 1998, when he went to work as the administrator for the Bradley-Turner Foundation for seven years.

At the foundation, he worked alongside his friend, Bill Turner.

“He fully understood his role with the foundation,” Brown said. “His job was to implement the plans of the foundation and not make decisions. He did that. And he did it well.”

The Bradley-Turner Foundation has been a driving force in the redevelopment of Columbus, donating millions of dollars to various organizations, institutions and causes.

Columbus businessman John Turner, who serves on the Bradley-Turner Foundation board and has worked on numerous boards and committees with Black, said Black also made a critical contribution to the foundation.

“He helped us become much more intentional in our giving,” John Turner said. “He was so involved in the community and understood the needs of our community. He helped us at the foundation understand those needs.”

A 1954 graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Black adopted Mercer University and Columbus State over the years.

Black and his wife, Doris, have supported the Mercer School of Medicine, endowing the Thomas B. and Doris E. Black Endowed Chair in Pediatrics in 2003. He was also instrumental in establishing a Mercer Medical School campus in Columbus.

But perhaps Black’s greatest gift to Mercer came in 1991, when he lent his talents to calm a campus crisis.

Black was the chairman of the Mercer board when the university was going through a difficult financial period. The situation became worse because of a feud between the faculty and then-President Kirby Godsey.

The faculty, which was not receiving raises, was dressing in academic regalia and marching at the administration building on a regular basis. Black, in a 2010 interview with the Ledger-Enquirer called it a “terrible conflict.” He was chairman of a reconciliation committee designed to bring the president, trustees and faculty back under one tent.

“He was the perfect man for that job,” said Augusta, Ga., attorney and Mercer trustee David Hudson said. “He had no agenda except what was best for Mercer.”

By the end of that year, Mercer was a calmer place. And during the years, those who were adversaries at the time became close friends.

Black later downplayed his role.

“We pretty much had it ironed out,” he said.

John Turner summed it up this way: “There was never a crisis with Tom. There was just work to be done. He was vital to every cause he touched because his counsel was so wise.”

In 2010, Black was named a life trustee at Mercer, an honor less than a dozen people at the university have achieved.

“Earlier today, we lost a cherished colleague,” said Mercer President William D. Underwood said in a statement Wednesday. “Tom was a good man, a loyal friend, and a selfless servant. His impact on Mercer will live on to benefit future generations of Mercerians.”

At Columbus State, Black was instrumental in the development of the downtown campus.

“Tom was deeply involved in the planning and the fundraising for our downtown campus,” Brown said.

Black was chairman of the CSU Foundation at the time a lot of the acquisition and development work for what would become the RiverPark campus was taking place.

“During that time, we asked him to serve a second term as chairman,” Brown said. “That was the first time and the only time that has happened.”

About 30 buildings and properties were acquired to cobble together the downtown campus, which has been a critical part of the redevelopment of city’s central business district.

“He was a champion of this community,” Brown said.

Black and his wife met at Baylor, where she was the secretary for the university’s president. Next month, they would have celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary.

Black is survived by his wife, four married daughters and sons-in-law — Jim and Kathy Stewart of Greenville, S.C., Jay and Cindy Sparks of Columbus, Nathan and Gina Watson of Macon and Walter and Mary Little of Birmingham, Ala. — 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“Tom was the head of the household,” Brown said. “But Doris was the heart of the operation. And he knew it. They shared a great love.”

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