Tommy Wyche’s greatest legacy is his quiet example of the transformative change one man with tenacity and vision can accomplish.
Eulogies, no matter how heartfelt, can seem a paltry thank-you compared to the magnitude of the achievements that earned them.
Such was the case this week as Greenville mourned the loss of a man instrumental to downtown’s rebirth and the conservation of acres upon acres of wild beauty across the Blue Ridge Mountains and beyond. So immense is that legacy, it tends to overshadow the long array of gifts Tommy Wyche bestowed on the Upstate – indeed, the entire state – in his long life of public service.
Wyche, who died last Friday at 88, was a dreamer with the tenacity to work decades to see those dreams realized. He built his law office on the kudzu-infested banks of the Reedy River when it was dwarfed by a concrete bridge and smelled like a sewer. He envisioned Falls Park, helped anchor the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Main Street and toiled with other city leaders for years to achieve the walkable downtown Greenville takes so happily for granted now.
But this quiet, driven man’s legacy will be forever rooted in the decades he devoted to preserving the wild glory of South Carolina’s mountains – a drive that led to one of the most important conservation achievements in U.S. history: the protection of more than 100,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, a mountain range stretching from the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia to the Poinsett Watershed in upper Greenville County.
The Cherokees called it the Blue Wall: a breathtaking array of craggy peaks, plant-carpeted ravines, dark forests and abundant waterfalls. Protecting it was Wyche’s tenacious work of more than 40 years, as he painstakingly persuaded landowners and developers, hunters and hikers, urbanites and mountain-dwellers to share his vision and agree to preserve the wilderness in its natural state.
In 1973, Wyche founded Naturaland Trust, the second-oldest land trust in the state, with the goal of protecting the state’s mountain edge with a bridge of public land. Piece by piece, he negotiated the conservation easements, watershed buffers and state parks necessary to guard the land from development and protect scenic views. Jones Gap State Park, Jocassee Gorges and Caesar’s Head State Park owe their existence to Wyche’s advocacy.
Wyche, who operated with a humility rare at his level of influence, collected a wall full of awards. He was past recipient of the Alexander Calder Conservation Award, the Nature Conservancy Oak Leaf Award and the Order of the Palmetto. The list is long.
But nothing on it compares to Wyche’s greatest reward: the wild Blue Wall that will be protected for generations to come, thanks to his extraordinary achievement.
A Greenvillian from birth, Tommy Wyche devoted his adult life to making his hometown what it is. It’s hard to imagine Greenville having to do without him.