Remembering Robards: A banker dedicated to Rock Hill

Business EditorDecember 8, 2012 

A chance meeting in the men’s rest room of Carmichael Auditorium at a University of North Carolina basketball game in 1965 made Rock Hill a better place.

It was a conversation between two bankers, Hugh McColl and Frank Robards Jr.

McColl, then with North Carolina National Bank, told Robards, then with Citizens & Southern National Bank in Hendersonville, N.C., that a small bank in Rock Hill needed a good No. 2 man.

Robards didn’t know where Rock Hill was, but he took the chance. He came to a welcoming community, family and friends said. But it probably didn’t matter where Frank Robards went, he would have embraced wherever he lived. That’s the kind of person he was, a man of character, integrity and compassion.

He made Rock Hill a better place because he was a banker who put character ahead of the bottom line. He gave tirelessly of himself professionally and in the community. He also gave his time and talents to help others.

He was, to many, simply “Mr. Banker.”

“He was a Godly Southern gentleman,” said Steve Moore of Rock Hill, who rose to become one of Robards’ vice presidents at the Rock Hill National Bank.

“He was completely dedicated to the community and he always did the right thing,” said Eddie Brown, who competed against Robards as an executive with the Rock Hill branch of Citizens & Southern. “The leadership he provided is hard to reproduce.”

Robards died Tuesday, seven days shy of his 83rd birthday. Funeral services are today at 11 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church, with the Rev. John Y. Todd III and Rev. Tai Z. Magette officiating.

Robards carried the “Mr. Banker” title with pride and respect. He served as president of the Rock Hill National Bank from 1972 to 1991.

“He was the consummate community banker, involved, visible and well liked,” said C. John Hipp, now CEO of the New Dominion Bank in Charlotte. He was one of Robards’ executives. “His people skills are hardly rivaled by anybody,” Hipp said.

His physical legacy is the Williamsburg-styled building he had constructed at the corner of Oakland Avenue and Main Street in downtown. Ironically, news that Bank of America, which now occupies the site, will close a branch at that site in March was the talk of the town the day Robards died.

Building a bank while the downtown area was struggling – it opened in 1976 – was an example of Robards’ commitment to his community, Hipp said.

As impressive as the building is, it was the atmosphere Robards created within its walls that employees remember most.

He came to work with a twinkle in his eyes and regarded his employees as his second family, said Andy Douglas, who began his banking career at Rock Hill National Bank in 1975. Douglas is now a managing director with Strategic Risk Associates, a bank consulting firm.

Douglas recalled numerous meetings where people would be “banging on calculators, trying to figure out what something would cost.” Robards, Douglas said, would consider the problem, do the math in his head, write a number on a piece of paper and wait for the others to finish. He was seldom wrong, Douglas said.

Robards also had a less serious side, said Rene Brannan of Rock Hill, who worked as a teller at the bank. Brannan said she was one of Robards’ favorites: “He would scare the ever-lovin’ mud out of me.” One of the best practical jokes happened after she accidently hit a drive-through customer in the head with the teller drawer.

A few minutes later she was summoned to Robards’ office, where she was told there was a man bleeding from the head and soon to be sent to the hospital for stitches. “It wasn’t true,” recalled Brannan with a laugh.

Rock Hill National Bank employees remember that Christmas was one of Robards’ favorite times of the year. Robards practiced his Christian faith daily, but took the extra time at Christmas to care for his employees, they said.

An annual highlight of the bank’s Christmas banquet was Robards reading the poem “One Solitary Life,” about Jesus.

The Christmas banquet put Robards in a different light to his daughter, Mary Kenyon Robards Jones. As daddy’s little girl, she knew her father was special but, “wow, I didn’t realize he was special to so many people. The blinders came off my eyes and I saw my father in a different light.”

Robards was the same at home as he was at work, said his son, Frank Robards III. He expected hard work and respect.

“The best advice I got from my father was to do the right thing even it’s hard to do and treat everyone with respect,” his son said.

For Frank Robards III, hard work meant spending several summers working at the Bleachery. His father had said he would pay for his education at The Citadel, his alma mater. But he would not give his son any money for personal expenses. One summer, Frank Robards III got a job working as a life guard at Hilton Head, but soon realized he wouldn’t be saving any money for the school year. He was quickly back at the Bleachery, working the third shift.

Frank Robards III’s devotion to his father has no bounds. Both graduated from The Citadel and both served in the military. Last Sunday, Frank Robards III spent 30 hours traveling to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic of the Congo in Africa. A captain in the Navy reserves, he had been called to active duty.

He then spent another 30 hours returning home for today’s funeral. He will go back to Kinshasa to resume his duties shortly.

Frank Robards Jr.’s legacy to Rock Hill, however, is not in a building. His legacy is the countless people who sought his counsel and help – people such as Gary Williams.

Williams, owner of the Williams & Fudge collection agency, remembers going to Robards for a loan to open his first business, a Putt-Putt miniature golf franchise in Rock Hill. Williams brought Robards a budget and repayment plan for review.

Robards, Williams remembers, told him the numbers didn’t add up.

“Your family can’t live on that,” Williams remembers Robards saying. They changed the terms of the $35,000 loan, extending it by two years and allowing Williams to bring home more money for his family.

“He gave me a chance when no banker should have given me a chance,” Williams said. “He looked at my character instead of my financial statement. He gave me a chance. I give Frank Robards full credit for my business career.”

Don Worthington 803-329-4066

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