Upstate visionary Tommy Wyche dies at 88

Cyril Thomas Wyche (1926 - 2015):

Cyril Thomas ("Tommy") Wyche, chief architect of the conservation of over 100,000 acres of the South Carolina mountains and a key leader in the city of Greenville's dramatic transformation into one of the nation's most livable cities, died at his home on January 23, 2015. He was 88.

Tommy was a generous, visionary, modern-day renaissance man. He excelled at and was fascinated by an astounding array of things – from land conservation to tennis, from nature photography to downtown development, from beekeeping to corporate law, from classical music to patented engineering inventions.

It is indicative of his breadth of accomplishments that his practice as an attorney for over 60 years at the respected Greenville firm that bears his name is not always mentioned in the top tier of his lifetime achievements. And yet he was a brilliant lawyer.

Born in 1926 in Greenville, Tommy was the youngest of five children and the only son of Mary Wheeler and Cyril Granville Wyche. In 1946, he graduated from Yale University with a degree in electrical engineering and then served in the U.S. Navy. In 1948, he married his high school sweetheart, Harriet Smith, and received his law degree from the University of Virginia the following year. The couple then moved back to Greenville where Tommy joined his father's law practice.

Tommy is recognized as one of our nation's great conservationists, with his four decades of leadership and herculean efforts on behalf of the South Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. It all began with a business trip to Los Angeles in 1972 where he saw the area's mountains covered with development. It was an epiphany for Tommy – he realized for the first time that the mountains he cherished and enjoyed could not be taken for granted. In 1973, he founded Naturaland Trust, a nonprofit organization, to serve as the vehicle for his conservation campaign and dedicated much of his life to the cause.

With relentless determination he wrote countless letters, attended countless meetings and made countless presentations on the need to act to protect our mountains before it was too late. He was one of the principal authors of the South Carolina Heritage Trust Act, the South Carolina Conservation Easement Act and the South Carolina Mountain Ridge Protection Act, which were new laws needed to achieve his conservation goals.

Later, employing his considerable skills as a photographer, he added to the campaign six coffee table books of his own breathtaking nature photographs, including South Carolina's Mountain Wilderness: The Blue Ridge Escarpment (with Tom Blagden) and The Blue Wall: Wilderness of the Carolinas and Georgia (with James Kilgo).

The end result is one of the most significant conservation achievements in our nations' history, with the protection of over 100, 000 acres, including Jocassee Gorges, the watersheds of Table Rock and Poinsett Reservoirs, and the land stretching between the two reservoirs, which Tommy himself named the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. Located within the Mountain Bridge are Jones Gap and Caesar's Head State Parks, two popular public parks that owe their existence to Tommy. Even as his health declined, he was actively working on the protection of additional properties in the mountains.

Tommy's foresight, tenacity and generosity are also evident in his contributions over the past 40 years to the rebirth of Greenville's award-winning downtown. Tommy was a key player – along with Buck Mickel and Mayor Max Heller – in the redesign of Main Street and bringing the Hyatt Regency Hotel to Greenville, which was the catalyst for the revitalization of the city's downtown. It was Tommy's legal acumen and innovative use of "air rights" that led to workable financing that convinced the Hyatt Corporation to invest in such a small and unlikely city as Greenville in the early 1980s.

After the Hyatt began operations, Tommy turned his attention to an important area of land along the western side of the Reedy River between Main and River Streets. At the time the area was unsightly and in serious economic decline, but Tommy had the vision for a redevelopment he called RiverPlace, with hotels, condominiums, shops, restaurants, artist studios, fountains, and pedestrian walkways along the river. After 25 years of hard work, leadership, patience, and determination, his vision is now a reality.

Tommy's positive impact on Greenville is everywhere. He played important roles, for example, in conceiving and developing the Peace Center, Heritage Green, the Bi-Lo Center (now the Bon Secours Wellness Arena), the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, and the Caine Halter Family YMCA.

He was a lover and advocate for the arts, especially the piano, which he played nearly every day from childhood through his 70's. He wrote the composition that was played at the City's dedication of the RiverPlace Bell Tower and Carillon in his honor in 2012. Tommy was the chairman of the first Greenville Arts Festival, the forerunner of today's nationally recognized Artisphere.

Tommy was an accomplished tennis player, winning the South Carolina singles tennis championship and earning the top ranking in four age categories (35, 55, 65 and 70) in both singles and doubles. He was the recipient of over 30 honors and awards, including the Order of the Palmetto, the State of South Carolina's highest civilian honor; The Nature Conservancy Oak Leaf Award; the Alexander Calder Conservation Award; honorary doctorate degrees from Clemson University, Furman University, and Wofford College; the Frances K. Hutchinson Medal from the Garden Club of America; the Buck Mickel Chairman's Award from the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce; the American Bar Association Award for Excellence in Environmental and Natural Resource Stewardship; the National Wildlife Federation National Conservation Achievement Award; the BMW Conservation Award; Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Lifetime Achievement Award from the South Carolina Arts Commission; the National Association of Park Directors President's Award; The Order of the Red Triangle, the YMCA's highest honor; and the City of Greenville's Green Day Honoree. He was included in Best Lawyers in America for 12 consecutive years.

He was also selected to carry the Olympic Torch through downtown Greenville on its way to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

The restored open-air building behind the Peace Center is named the Wyche Pavilion in honor of the extraordinary contributions that Tommy and his late wife, Harriet (the longtime champion of Falls Park on the Reedy), made to the community.

Tommy obtained three patents for his inventions: the flexible parabolic arch, the adjustable rung ladder, and the computer-generated virtual 3-D trail map.

For years, he drove modest Subarus, filled to the brim with hiking supplies and maps. He relished a fresh-squeezed glass of lemonade, silly word puns, solving a complex problem (math or legal), and a day outdoors. He was known by his close friends and family for his harmonica playing, questionable fashion sense, and transforming generosity. He was known by his colleagues for his hand-written notes – he wrote thousands of them over the years – and for his persuasive powers and quiet tenacity.

Tommy is predeceased by his wife of 63 years, Harriet; his four sisters: Mary Burgess, Caro Wofford, Sara Higgins, and Marcia McIver. He is survived by his half-brothers, Cecil Wyche (Beth Des Jardins) and Spencer Wyche of Greenville; three children and their spouses, Brad Wyche (Diane Smock) of Greenville; Sally Coenen (Dan Coenen) of Athens, GA; and Mimi Wyche (Davis Enloe) of Greenville. He is survived by five grandchildren: Michael Coenen, Charles Wyche, Amy Coenen, Jessica Wyche, and Claire Coenen, as well as many nieces and nephews.

The family wishes to express its profound gratitude to the outstanding team who took care of Tommy during his prolonged illness: Tangie Cornatzer, Deb Davis, Amy Allred, and Debbie Thomason.

The family will receive visitors at Genevieve's at the Peace Center on Monday, January 26, 2015, from 2:00 – 5:00 p.m. A memorial service will be held Tuesday, January 27, 2015, at 2:00 p.m. at the Gunter Theatre at the Peace Center.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorials be made to Naturaland Trust, 148 River Street, Suite 110, Greenville, SC 29601; the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, 15 University Street, Greenville, SC 29601; or the Caine Halter Family YMCA, 721 Cleveland Street, Greenville, SC 29601.

Thomas McAfee Funeral Home, Downtown is in charge or arrangements.