Tommy Wyche devotes life to environment, improving quality of life

environment people

When Greenville lawyer Tommy Wyche isn't in his office handling legal matters, he's quietly working behind the scenes to make Greenville a better community.

A Greenville native, Wyche has seen the continuous growth explosion and its effects - both good and bad. Being an optimist, Wyche is hopeful that growth can be controlled so the region doesn't drown in its own success.

"I don't think elected leaders are the only ones who can control economic growth," Wyche said. "The Chamber of Commerce can have a huge impact on the nature of our growth. In the past, we sought industries simply to give employment to the work force, pretty much, but today I think we can be a lot more selective."

Wyche, an attorney with the Greenville law firm Wyche, Burgess, Freeman and Parham, has no plans to slow down his efforts to work behind the scenes to help guide the thoughtful planning of Greenville.

In 2001, Wyche earned the Chamber's Buck Mickel Chairman's Award. He was also featured in a television documentary called "The Faces of Change: The Conservation of the Blue Wall" that aired on South Carolina Educational Television.

"Greenville may be succeeding too fast," Wyche said. "I think we need to slow down and decide where we want to be in 20 or 30 years.

Twenty years ago Charlotte was the size that Greenville is today. Charlotte's path is the road we are proceeding down; is this the course we want to follow or can we figure how to preserve what is important to us?"

Wyche said he sees more public support for controlling urban sprawl.

"I'm encouraged by what I sense is concern expressed by the people throughout the area and the potential private and public funding to preserve land," said Wyche, who wears his traditional bow tie, vest and coat and keeps reminders of nature around him, such as photos of camping trips and a tabletop waterfall.

But that will take a commitment to spend more money to compensate landowners who will voluntarily sign conservation easements, he said.

"I'm encouraged, but unless you're willing to pay people to permanently limit the use of their property, it's not fair to zone property and severely restrict the uses, without compensating the property owner," he said.

Those who know Wyche believe Greenville would not be as desirable a place to live if it weren't for him. They believe his motives aren't greed and glory, but rather selfless determination to leave future generations a great place to live.

An example of his work is the Bi-Lo Center. Wyche worked with a handful of other Greenville leaders behind the scenes for almost two decades to ensure the entertainment/sports arena had the proper financial and legal backing.

And during the mid-1970s, when downtown was stagnating, Wyche was part of a development group that would ultimately convince the Hyatt Hotel to open on Main Street. The Hyatt would become the catalyst for the rebirth of the downtown area that today's shoppers and diners enjoy.

Wyche said, "It is interesting to think back on the group, which funded the construction of the Hyatt complex. The idea that one of our group would seek to make a profit was totally foreign to the group. In fact, we raised $5 million as seed money and never got any of it back and never will.

"This group included Max Heller, who was mayor back then, Buck Mickel, Arthur Magill, Francis Hipp, Caldwell Harper, Ned Sloan and many others."

Recently, he was instrumental in bringing to conclusion another conservation project known as the Blue Wall Preserve. This is a 6,000-acre project on the eastern edge of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness near Landrum.

Part of this land, a 1,069-acre tract 30 miles north of Greenville known as Chestnut Ridge, was acquired by the state's Heritage Trust program for $2.3 million. The property is the only place in South Carolina where blue-eyed grass, a federally endangered species, is found.

Wyche also was the first person to begin work on protecting what many thought couldn't be done - Lake Jocassee and the surrounding mountains, owned by Duke Power.

After knocking on the doors of three Duke Power presidents over a 15-year period, the company sold 33,000 acres to the state.

"Tommy Wyche foresaw a threat to the mountains of Greenville County," said Frank Crowder, outgoing chairman of the Sierra Club's Greenville area chapter. "Because of this, some of our irreplaceable mountain heritage will be preserved from encroaching development."

Wyche was born in Greenville, six years after his father, Granville Wyche, moved to the area from Washington, D.C.

Biographical data

  • Education: Bachelor's degree from Yale University and law degree from the University of Virginia. Also, honorary degrees from Clemson and Furman universities and Wofford College
  • First job: Wyche, Burgess, Freeman and Parham
  • Wife: Harriet
  • Children: Brad, attorney; Sally, musician; and Mimi, actress
  • Hobbies: Photography, skiing, hiking, camping, piano, scuba diving, tennis
  • Favorite vacation spot: Colorado ski slopes
  • Most admired person: My father, Granville
  • Favorite personal trait: Perseverance
  • Favorite trait in others: Open-minded
  • Least favorite personal trait: Name recollection
  • Least favorite trait in others: Simplistic solutions and indifference to making any contribution
  • Life defining experience, most unforgettable: Trek in Himalayan mountains in Nepal
  • Car: Subaru
  • Political affiliation: Independent

Bob Montgomery