Many know him as a textile titan in Fort Mill, many more as the name of a favorite place to play. To those who knew him well, Walter Y. Elisha won’t soon be forgotten on either account.
Elisha, namesake of Walter Elisha Park in Fort Mill, died July 4. He was 84.
Elisha arrived at Springs Industries in 1980 as president and chief operating officer. A year later, he became chief executive officer of then century-old textile company, and was named chairman of the board in 1983. He retired in 1998, replaced by Crandall Bowles, a direct descendant of the company’s founder.
“I was fortunate to work for him during much of that time,” Bowles said Thursday.
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Elisha oversaw major moves by the company.
“His acquisition of Lowenstein in 1985 was one of the most significant in our history, bringing us manufacturing capacity as well as the Wamsutta brand, which along with our Springmaid brand, was instrumental in giving us a leading market share with many of our largest customers,” Bowles said.
He led the company in a strategic shift, she said, from an apparel emphasis to consumer products. A move needed due to foreign competition.
“But which helped prolong our ability to manufacture in the U.S. for as long as possible,” Bowles said.
Ann Evans, archivist for the Springs family, which founded what would become the biggest mill in the town’s history, reels off a lengthy list of credentials and accomplishments for Elisha. He served on regional and national boards. He led manufacturing organizations.
In an April 1993 speech to one of many groups bestowing Elisha an award, the executive spoke of $1.2 billion in advanced technology upgrades in company plants and the 20,000 U.S. associates from his time in the 1980s until then. Of how the company became, in his words, “a leader in virtually every market we serve.”
Elisha was so accomplished, the company planned a parting gift when he left that will long outlive him. A park named in his honor, for use as a public gathering spot in perpetuity.
“That was certainly the purpose of it,” Evans said.
In April, the Springs family gave the 14-acre park on North White Street to Fort Mill. It sits on land where a Springs facility stood until damaged by fire in 1988. Groups like the Fort Mill History Museum use the park for large events, while residents can be seen regularly walking or running the large loop along its perimeter. That paved loop is why the park also came to be known informally as “the walking park.”
Anne Springs Close, namesake of the 2,100-acre Anne Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mill, was out of the country and unavailable for comment at press time Thursday. But, at the April ceremony where the town took ownership of Elisha Park, she mentioned it among the great community assets here.
“People ask me, do I have a favorite spot on the Greenway and I say ‘my favorite thing is that it will be here forever,” she told the Fort Mill Times that day, “and I feel that way about this park, too.”
Mayor Guynn Savage found out about Elisha’s death Thursday morning. Savage said he was an “extremely important” figure in the town’s history and instrumental in the success of Springs Industries. Long before he ever was known for a park.
“Fort Mill was very blessed to have the leadership of Walter Elisha for many years," Savage said. "His generosity has certainly been enjoyed by all."
Savage said members of her family went to school with members of his. She recalls Elisha providing the play equipment at the park. He also commissioned seven life-size bronze sculptures inspired by his company’s values. They stand at the park and elsewhere in Fort Mill.
While Elisha’s is a known name to people who have been involved for decades in Fort Mill, it also is the first some come across in visiting the town. Elisha Park hosts the South Carolina Strawberry Festival each year. Tens of thousands attend.
“We certainly appreciate the legacy that he leaves behind,” Savage said.
Elisha loved the history of his company and town, working to preserve it, including “The Springs Story,” a book celebrating the company’s centennial. It covered the history of workers and facilities that helped make Springs and the town what it was.
“Our family greatly appreciates Walter's many contributions to Springs,” Bowles said.