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Bobby Edwards Sr. was 'pioneer' in college merchandise

When someone buys a magnet for his car with the USC Gamecocks logo, or a blanket with the Clemson Tiger, he can thank Rock Hill's Bobby Edwards Sr.

Edwards started Bobby Edwards Enterprises out of the trunk of his car in the late 1970s, with aspirations of selling college merchandise.

More than 30 years later, the company manufactures and distributes collegiate products across the nation, with official licensing agreements with the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The College Shoppe on Cherry Road sells some of the merchandise and was one of the first exclusively collegiate retail stores in the nation.

"He wasn't a pioneer" of the collegiate product industry, one of his sons, Dennis Edwards, said Tuesday. "He was the pioneer. That was the absolute truth."

Edwards died last week. He was 76.

As Dennis Edwards recalled how his father created the company, he was attending a national college bookstore show in Salt Lake City with more than 2,000 exhibitors.

"I'm here with my son," he said, "and we can't go 30 seconds without someone talking to me about Dad."

Bobby Edwards Sr. was born in Rock Hill in 1935. He attended Rock Hill High School, then sold cars until 1975.

That was when he picked up the nickname "Blue."

His third wife, Ruby Edwards, said her husband was a car salesman during the years when race relations were tense. One day, she said, a black man came to his dealership to buy a car. Other salesmen wouldn't help him, saying the man didn't have the money.

But Edwards helped the customer right away, taking him for a spin in the car. The man returned later with cash and bought the car.

As he was leaving, the man called Edwards "Blue," and the name stuck.

When Edwards retired from car sales in 1975, his son Dennis, was running a party shop and keg service on Ebenezer Avenue. His father went to work with him. One day, a man arrived with USC- and Clemson-themed mirrors and simply handed them over, saying he just couldn't seem to sell them.

That gave Bobby Edwards an idea.

"He called one day and said he was quitting his job - him and my mother (the late Nancy Jo Edwards) both," Dennis Edwards said. "They decided to start doing this college stuff full-time. I told him he'd lost his mind, but he started peddling those mirrors out of the back of his car."

Next were college-themed blankets. The business boomed.

"In those days, there was nobody doing anything collegiate," Dennis Edwards said. "Then the whole family was doing it. Then he started selling out of his house in 1978, 1979. After that, it just got to where we'd go to trade shows across the country, and there was nobody doing that except one company out of Chicago."

"Nowadays, you look at it, and everything seems to be going to Nike. ... But we're still probably the oldest at these shows, company-wise."

Some of the most popular school items people are for Louisiana State University, the University of Alabama, Clemson and South Carolina - which pleased Bobby Edwards just fine, since he was a huge Gamecocks fans.

Though Bobby Edwards Enterprises has its warehouse on Dave Lyle Boulevard, most people know the College Shoppe, formerly located on Camden and Oakland avenues, but is now on Cherry Road.

The shop had closed at some point, but Edwards said their customers encouraged them to return, so they did.

"He always told the story that the reason he got into this business is he was starving to death in the liquor business, and he didn't want to go to back to the automobile business," Dennis Edwards said. "He got the gumption and fortitude to say, 'I'm going to do this full-time.'"

Though Dennis Edwards has been running the company for several years, his father stayed active in the business.

College Shoppe manager Marisa Bailey said she was used to seeing Edwards' always-smiling face every morning.

"He would come in every day, pick up the mail and the money and take it to the warehouse," he said. "We used to joke and called him 'errand boy.'"

"He loved life," she said. "Every morning, I still think about him coming to the store."

Edwards also served in the South Carolina National Guard, was a charter member of the Rock Hill Shag Club and was inducted into the Living Legends at Ocean Drive Beach. He was a member of the Rock Hill Elks Club, the Masonic Lodge, SOS and the Ole Timers Club at Ocean Drive Beach.

Something everyone remembers about Edwards was his love of travel. He met Ruby in 2010 through friends. Their travel destinations included Italy and Australia.

"I'm glad he got to see Australia," she said. "That's the one thing he wanted to see."

The couple married on a glacier in Alaska.

"You don't find many men like that," she said. "He was so kind. I thought the world of him. He was a great man."