Posted on September 27th, 2022

HARTSVILLE, S.C. – This is Richard A. “Dick” Puffer’s last week as executive director of The Byerly Foundation in Hartsville.

He will retire Friday from the position he has held for 22 years. Brianna Douglas, who has been the associate executive director since March, will take over the position on Oct. 1.

Puffer’s career path has been varied – Marine, teacher, journalist, corporate communications, college professor and leader of a nonprofit dedicated to helping people build a better community in Hartsville.

In a chat with the New York native about his life in Hartsville, what he will miss about his day-to-day connections with people in the community and his plans for retirement, Puffer said, “I have learned a lot from everything I’ve done and enjoyed most of it. I didn’t enjoy being an elementary school teacher, but I enjoyed the journey.”

In January 2000, Puffer accepted a full-time position at Coker College, where he taught communication courses. Three months later, he was offered the part-time position as executive director of The Byerly Foundation.

“In order to take The Byerly Foundation job I had to ask permission from those I reported to at Coker,” Puffer said. “I assured them that my teaching and job as faculty member would not suffer from my taking on this job.”

Puffer said he went on to become a master professor at Coker and retire from teaching in May 2016.

He is only the second person to hold the executive director position at The Byerly Foundation.. Puffer has held the position since March of 2000, succeeding Jo Coxe.

“Coxe helped The Byerly Hospital Board of Directors explore the world of foundations and make the decision to form The Byerly Foundation,” according to an announcement about Puffer’s retirement.

The Byerly Foundation, formed with the proceeds of the sale of Byerly Hospital to a for-profit hospital company in 1995, is run by a volunteer board of trustees whose focus has been finding ways to use foundation resources in conjunction with other resources to make an impact on education, economic development and social needs, the announcement said.

The foundation follows IRS rules for private foundations and spends a minimum of 5 percent of its assets annually according to regulations. Since it began giving grants in 1998 the foundation has invested nearly $25 million in the Hartsville community.

“I have probably had one of the best jobs anybody could have anywhere in the world,” Puffer said. “I’ve been able to be a part of an organization whose main focus is trying to make Hartsville, South Carolina, one of the best places in the world in which to live, play, work and raise a family. And it has just been a fantastic opportunity.”

While executive director of The Byerly Foundation, Puffer said, he has been able to actually do many of the things he was teaching his students about in communication classes at Coker such as marketing, networking and making connections. It was a perfect blend of these two positions, he said.

Can-do attitude
“When I get the opportunity to talk about the treasure that our community has in The Byerly Foundation I almost always begin with a concept I read years ago, ‘It is amazing how much can be accomplished when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit,’” Puffer said in the announcement. “The “Can Do” culture of Hartsville is one of the major differences we have going for us in this community.”

The Byerly Foundation is a private foundation that gives grants to eligible organizations so that they can find ways to make Hartsville better tomorrow than it is today.

“And we have a great community today, and we will have an even better community tomorrow because of the ‘Can Do’ attitude of all the people in Hartsville,” he said.

Puffer said he is probably going to miss the connections he has made within the community the most.

“This job has given me the opportunity to meet lots of people in lots of different places in the community. Early on I started holding community conversations as a way of looking outward,” he said. “I think that is important for foundations and nonprofits.”

He held these community conversations with large and small groups.

“If people know about us they know us as a grant-making foundation. They know us for our contributing to the community,” he said.

He said people also know the foundation for connecting groups and people together.

The community conversations early on were a means of connecting, he said, as were the more recent community meetings held on Zoom calls during COVID.

Puffer said the Zoom meetings started about two weeks into COVID and were a means of connecting people in the community and nonprofits for open dialogue. The meetings were held on a weekly basis for about a year.

He said there would almost always be someone who would give out a piece of information that was needed by everyone. He said these calls helped keep people connected and informed.

The Byerly Foundation has become a means of communication and convening, bringing people with different perspectives together to find ways to make things happen, he said.

Puffer said the foundation is a catalyst for helping other organizations. He said there is never enough money to do all the worthy projects, but the foundation can provide enough grant money to get some projects started.

The applicants might not always receive funding but the application process helps people dream and put those dreams on paper.

The Byerly Foundation has focused much of its attention and resources on education, mainly in the public schools in Hartsville, Puffer said. Two other main focus areas are economic development and quality of life.

Puffer spoke about some of the projects The Byerly Foundation has provided with grants.

“We paid for a consultant to work at the school district to help teachers enhance the content they were delivering to students,” he said. This was a million and half dollar project.

Early on the foundation helped fund a reading program, trying to get children to grade level by third grade.

“We continue to fund education and work with the school district,” he said.

Puffer said the Butler Foundation received a grant from The Byerly Foundation to help get started on a major renovation project at the former Butler High School complex, where the Butler campus office was converted to a gathering place that is making a major impact in the Hartsville community. The renovation of the Butler Gym was special for Puffer because as a sports reporter early in his career he spent a lot of time in that gym covering Butler basketball games.

Another big project The Byerly Foundation worked on was getting the railroad out to the middle of town and bringing the Governor’s School to Hartsville.

What started as a few parents wanting to have a soccer field for their children to play on turned into a $650,000 grant from The Byerly Foundation for the formation of Byerly Park, Puffer said. The foundation worked with the city of Hartsville and others to make this dream for Hartsville come true.

He said the Governor’s School and Byerly Park both tie into economic development and the goal to make Hartsville a better place to work, play and raise a family.

Most recently, The Byerly Foundation helped small businesses suffering during COVID.

Puffer said that has been one of the most satisfying projects he has worked on other entities to accomplish. He said the city of Hartsville wanted to help businesses struggling through COVID but didn’t have the money.

“They came to us,” he said.

He said The Byerly Foundation was able to give a grant so that smaller grants could be given to businesses.

Later on in COVID, Puffer said, The Byerly Foundation and the Sonoco Foundation came together to provide grant money for nonprofits. He said through the Community Foundation for a Better Hartsville grants of $2,500 to $5,000 were given to help nonprofits, who were seeing declines in contributions during COVID, keep going.

“That was gratifying because it really made a difference for nonprofits,” he said.

The Byerly Foundation also is helping with the Center Theater’s renovation efforts, which is now in progress, by providing a $500,000 grant. This is also a collaborative effort of funding.

Puffer said his major frustration has been that every project takes a long time to get done. At least it takes a long time if it is not a crisis, he said. Puffer said the beauty is that it gets done.

The future
“It has been one of the greatest opportunities of my life to be part of this foundation whose mission is working with others to continue making Hartsville better tomorrow than it is today. It is my observation that Brianna Douglas is already finding new and exciting ways to continue this mission well into the future,” Puffer said.

“I’ve been thinking about retiring for a while. I am 75,” Puffer said. “I’m retiring now because it is time.”

“When Dick announced his intention to retire, our board put a succession plan in place that would help us ensure a smooth transition of leadership for the foundation,” said Linda Weatherford, chair of The Byerly Foundation Board. “As the longtime executive director, Dick has been involved with a wide variety of projects involving crucial areas of the greater Hartsville community. We know that we are going to miss his leadership, but the board is also confident that we have a strong successor in Brianna Douglas who is positioned to help the board continue its role as a community catalyst for positive change.”

Puffer said it is time for someone else to be in the role of executive director who will bring a different perspective to the role. He said he has talked with his board for at least three years about the succession plan. He is certain that the foundation will be in most capable hands with Douglas as the next executive director. She has been in the role of associate executive director since March and through the transition process.

“She is a good choice,” Puffer said.

“It has been an honor to work with Dick Puffer and The Byerly Foundation,” Weatherford said. “Dick is a true community champion whose motives are always to enhance, improve, and grow Hartsville. He has been a dedicated leader and his legacy will continue to impact the work of The Byerly Foundation for many years to come.”

About Puffer
Puffer came to South Carolina from Rome, New York, to teach in Bishopville; met his wife, Sylvia, also a teacher, and stayed. The couple raised their two daughters, Eve and Inga, here.

While a junior in college, Puffer enlisted in the United State Marine Corps. He was involved in Operation Pipestone Canyon, a search-and-destroy mission during the Vietnam War. He is the recipient of a Purple Heart and Navy commendation.

Puffer traveled abroad for about six months before moving to Hartsville. After teaching a year, he took a job with the Hartsville Messenger as a sports reporter and was later named news editor. While at the Hartsville Messenger, Puffer enrolled in the master of communication program at the University of South Carolina and received a degree.

He was hired by Sonoco Products Company in its communications department and eventually became the director of corporate communications. He worked for Sonoco for nearly 20 years.

From 1986 to 1996, Puffer served on the Darlington County Board of Education.

He has been a member of the Hartsville Rotary Club and serves as a member of the Hartsville United Way board.

In his spare time, he is an avid reader and exercise enthusiast.

Puffer is looking forward to his retirement and spending more time writing. He said he wants to draw on his days as a journalist and perhaps do a blog about what is going on in Hartsville. He also plans to spend more time at the YMCA and Byerly Park getting in better shape.

He will continue to work to make Hartsville a better place to live, work, play and raise a family. He has already started volunteering with the Red Cross.

Retirement will also mean more time to spend with his wife, children and grandchildren.