Charlotte lost a brilliant visionary, civic leader, and pioneer yesterday. While you may not know him, I promise you have felt the effect of his vision, and his deep optimism for and belief in Charlotte and its people. Dennis Rash passed away Tuesday at the age of 77. While we are deeply saddened by our loss, unquestionably his presence is evident all over our city and will be for generations to come.
It is hard to believe, seeing Uptown as we know it today, that in the 1960s and 70s it wasn’t a thriving part of our city. There was little, if any, livable housing, and much of the economic activity kept people away at night and kept CMPD busy. And yet, Dennis Rash had a vision.
There is a famous story of Hugh McColl “summoning” Dennis to his office in the 70s. The two of them walked over to a window overlooking Third, Fourth, and part of First Ward. Hugh turned to Dennis and said: “Let’s fix it.” And thus began Dennis’ 23-year career in community development for Bank of America, then NCNB. Convincing bank regulators of an ambitious plan, Dennis created the nation’s first-ever bank-owned Community Development Corporation. The first project the CDC tackled? The revitalization of Fourth Ward.
Dennis attacked this mission the same way he did with everything: with collaboration, creativity, and courage (including becoming one of Fourth Ward’s first residents). This was the start of real development in Uptown, and the city we know today would not exist without it. The CDC went on to invest more than a billion dollars creating more than 30,000 affordable homes for deserving families.
His vocation – and avocation – did not begin with NCNB. Dennis spent eight years as the Dean of Students at UNC Charlotte, during the University’s formative years, literally building one of Charlotte’s most important and impactful assets. After retiring from the bank, he returned to the University. It was always his belief that UNC Charlotte and the Center City were more vibrant and effective together, and he worked tirelessly over decades for that progress.
The list of neighborhoods and people he has impacted in a positive way is staggering. What you won’t see in any list, however, is what made him a person of true substance. First, he always chose great collaborators and partners: Hugh McColl, Harvey Gantt, Bill Lee and others. His best choice of a collaborator was, of course, in the creation of what is possibly the greatest civic couple of all time: his union with and marriage to Betty Chafin Rash. Betty is a civic force of nature in her own right. Together, the two were unstoppable, and all of us in Charlotte are better for it.
As for me, and for literally thousands of others, Dennis was our teacher. And we learned. More than once he set me straight on the importance of doing things with people, and not to them, and that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. People all over Charlotte are the disciples of the “School of Dennis Rash”, and we will not forget what he has taught us both in word and deed. Our deep sadness today for the loss of our hero, mentor, and friend is eclipsed by only one thing: the knowledge that he would expect us to carry forward the progress and vision for which he was the catalyst and to which his every breath was dedicated.
In his honor, and with his wind at our back, we will.
Bessant is Chief Operations and Technology Officer at Bank of America and chairperson of the North Tryon Advisory Committee.