Dennis Rash, a lawyer, banker and university leader who helped reshape uptown Charlotte and its most cherished hallmarks over five decades, died Tuesday night after fighting Parkinson’s disease. He was 77.
Rash’s mark on Charlotte began in the 1970s, before the city’s rise as a financial hub but as its new university took root on former cow pastures. He oversaw the rebirth of Victorian-era Fourth Ward, his longtime home. And he was an early advocate of the light rail lines that next year will connect two of his passions, uptown and UNC Charlotte.
Teamed with his wife, Betty Chafin Rash, the third woman elected to Charlotte City Council and the first to serve as mayor pro-tem, the Rashes for decades formed one of the city’s most influential couples.
Rash, a Lenoir native and Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill, became a key figure in imagining the vibrant potential of an uptown that once shut down when the bank offices closed.
“He had a deep love of this community and not only the institutions that would eventually go on to define this city, like UNCC and Bank of America, but using those institutions to really build a community that was different from the one he came to coming out of college and law school,” said Jeff Michael, whom Rash helped pick as director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
Rash served as dean of students during UNCC’s formative years in the 1970s. He then spent 23 years at what is now Bank of America, where he became the first president of the bank’s community development subsidiary.
He became known as the Mayor of Fourth Ward, the once-blighted neighborhood near uptown.
“Dennis led our bank’s efforts in redeveloping Fourth and then Third wards,” former Bank of America chairman Hugh McColl Jr. said in an obituary provided by his family. “He brought more people to Charlotte’s center city than anyone else. He was a visionary and a dreamer, and he knew how to make his big ideas a reality. I consider him one of my better friends. I’ll miss him a lot.”
Added UNCC historian David Goldfield: Rash “has probably done more than any other individual to transform Charlotte from a series of suburban subdivisions to a gosh-honest city.”
Rash returned to UNCC in 2001 as executive-in-residence and visiting professor for transportation policy studies.
He served on the state Board of Transportation and, Michael said, championed passenger rail, including the light rail that Charlotte eventually adopted. The avid cyclist also pushed for bike paths.
Chafin Rash, who he married in 1980, co-founded the Charlotte Women’s Political Caucus, which encouraged women to run for political office. She also co-founded the 2008 Women’s Summit at UNCC that became a research unit focused on improving the lives of women through research, education and civic engagement.
The university, in honoring the couple with its Distinguished Service Award in 2013, credited Dennis Rash as a driving force in the development of uptown’s UNC Charlotte Center City and the adjacent First Ward Park.
Although he held a law degree from the University of Virginia, Rash was much more than just smart, said retired UNCC Chancellor Jim Woodward.
“He had extraordinary interpersonal skills,” Woodward said. “If you met Dennis, you just immediately liked him. He had a kind, sly smile that extended into his eyes. He joked a lot, and he and Betty were wonderful partners.”
Rash served as a trustee and chairman of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. CEO Lee Keesler said Rash’s commitment mirrored that of 19th-century philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who believed that public libraries are vehicles for people to better themselves.
“He loved the library,” Keesler said, “and the library loved him.”
In 2014 Rash was recruited to lead a reinvention committee that explored whether to keep the Main Library uptown, its home since 1903. That led to an expanded proposal to tear down and replace the Main Library at Sixth and Tryon streets as the first part of an ambitious plan to redevelop two full city blocks.
“The work Dennis did propelled us into that conversation,” Keesler said. “The work his committee did in 2014 and 2015 has been the foundation for a lot of work done since then.”
Rash is survived, in addition to his wife, by a son, Jim Rash, a daughter, Mebane Rash, and two grandchildren.
Jim Rash, a 1989 Charlotte Latin School graduate, shared the 2012 Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his first produced theatrical feature, “The Descendants.” He lives in Los Angeles and was a character on NBC’s comedy series “Community.”
Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, nonprofit dedicated to improving public schools.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 2 at First Presbyterian Church.