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Ritchie Foundation operates in way that would make Hubert, Blanche proud

SALISBURY — To avoid paying admission to the Rowan County Fair, Hubert Ritchie always went to the back entrance where the livestock trucks and trailers would go in, acting as though he belonged with the people arriving to show off their animals.

Don Menius says if you walked into a restaurant with Ritchie he might tell you to grab a seat while he ordered two 99-cent hamburgers, a senior iced tea and one order of fries to split.

Ritchie tediously shopped around for the best interest rates on certificates of deposits, and he was so thrifty he figured out a way he and his wife, Blanche, could live on his Social Security check alone.

Tim Ervin remembers Hubert saying, “I just make it a point not to want anything.”

Not many folks realized this retired dairy farmer and textile worker, who enjoyed reading his daily newspaper by the wood stove in Menius’ shop, was a millionaire and a philanthropist at heart.

In the past 10 years, trustees of the Hubert and Blanche Ritchie Foundation have quietly given close to $3 million to local students, schools, churches, law enforcement, the hospital and nonprofits.

It has been harder for the foundation to keep a low profile lately because it recently financed the new $500,000 exhibition hall/events center at the fairgrounds and committed $300,000 to the renovation and expansion of the South Salisbury Fire Department.

The shelter at the American Legion park in Faith, the gazebo at Granite Lake Park, a reading lab and new playground equipment at Woodleaf Elementary, a clothes closet for uniforms at Koontz Elementary, an alert dog for a diabetic child, endowment scholarships in the Ritchies’ name at Catawba College and Pfeiffer University and back-to-school and Christmas money for kids at Nazareth’s Children’s Home — all are other examples of what the Ritchie Foundation has provided for the community.

If any foundation was ever operated in the image of its benefactors, the Hubert and Blanche Ritchie Foundation fits that description.

Its three non-corporate trustees — Barbara Brown, Ervin and Menius — were close friends of the late couple. They especially know what Hubert would go for and what he would not. It makes them proactive, often checking up on how money they have awarded is being used.

“Only because we don’t want it wasted,” Brown says.

The trustees approach their stewardship of the Ritchie Foundation for what it is — homegrown —  and recipients of foundation money usually have some connection to Hubert and/or Blanche.

Brown, Ervin and Menius also try when possible to focus on the area of Rowan County just south and east of Salisbury where the Ritchies grew up and lived.

Every time the trustees think of the new 9,000-square-foot Ritchie Building at the fairgrounds, they picture Hubert’s relationship to the fair, the land, his cattle and the old Ritchie farm. They hope the new events center provides income to the Rowan County Fair Association that will help improve the rest of the fairgrounds.

As for the huge South Salisbury Fire Department gift, which will be spread out over four years, Ritchie was a charter member of the department.

Before his death in 2004, Hubert laid out pretty specific marching orders on how he wanted to see the foundation’s money distributed. He directed that it be used almost exclusively in Rowan County. Funds had to go to nonprofits and help children as much as possible. He also wanted recipients to be appreciative, and the trustees take that directive seriously.

It may sound simple, but they expect to receive a thank you when foundation funds are distributed, and that goes back again to Hubert.

“If he gave you a dollar, and you said, ‘thank you,’ you’d probably get another dollar,” Menius says.

But if there were no sign of gratitude, there would be no more money from Ritchie. The trustees take the same approach.

“It’s not a joke for us,” Menius says.

Brown, Ervin and Menius live within five minutes of each other, and they might meet weekly, monthly or as often as needed to fulfill their obligations for the foundation. There is also a corporate trustee looking after the foundation’s investments, and the trio keep close tabs on that trustee, too.

“This is not a rubber-stamp outfit,” Menius says. “We can change directions in a minute.”

Their friend Hubert Ritchie continues to cast a long shadow.

“It still feels like he’s looking down on us saying, ‘I don’t think I’d spend my money on that,'” Ervin says.

Blanche Ritchie, who had worked for Cannon Mills for 35 years, died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 83. Hubert Ritchie died in 2004 from injuries he received when he was struck by a vehicle along Jake Alexander Boulevard.

On the way back from walking at the former Salisbury Mall one morning, Ritchie had stopped his car and, for some reason, stepped out onto the road. He was 88.

“We never really figured out what happened,” Brown says, though it was in Ritchie’s nature to have stopped, maybe to clear the road of debris so other motorists wouldn’t hit it.

After Blanche’s death, Hubert set up a trust fund that started making gifts to churches and schools in late December 2000. After he died, the trust converted to a foundation that was up and running by 2005.

Hubert Ritchie left everything to the foundation, and the trustees emphasize “everything” — his house, vehicles, and all the household goods. He and Blanche had never had children.

The Ritchies made a fair sum of money from their sale of 80 acres of farmland to Rowan County in 1995-96. With the acquisition of some other property in the area, the county carved out its industrial park along Interstate 85 and Julian Road.

At the time, Ritchie said the county paid him a fair price, later revealed to be $15,500 an acre. But Ritchie’s friends can’t emphasize enough how Hubert also squirreled money away his whole life, besides being a keen investor before and after the farmland sold.

Hubert followed an investment strategy that said buy into a company you know and know well — then stick with it.

His trustee friends say even though Ritchie never finished high school, he had street smarts and a professional manner. He read the newspaper meticulously, keeping up with every deed transfer and marriage license, and he appreciated hearing differences of opinion.

“He thought two heads were better than one, as long as they didn’t agree,” Menius says.

The more you got to know him, the more you appreciated Hubert’s sense of humor, his friends say. And if Blanche and Hubert allowed themselves any extravagance, it was traveling.

Hubert collected rocks from each of the continental United States and brought them home. They didn’t cost him anything, of course.

Ritchie’s German immigrant grandfather, George Ritchie, settled in Rowan County and built a home in this south Salisbury area in 1888.

The family established a dairy farm and went on to bottle its own milk and deliver it all over the county. More than 100 cows were on the farm, and at least 40 were milked daily. The Ritchies eventually gave up milking and transitioned into the beef cattle business.

When Hubert gave up farming completely, he went to work at Cone Mills.

Hubert made sure his friends knew he wanted Blanche’s name included on anything with which the foundation was involved. She was active in Christiana Lutheran Church and always giving of her time, baking cakes and pies for friends and those in need.

Blanche also tended an expansive flower garden at the couple’s home off Faith Road.

With the large gifts recently handed out, the Hubert and Blanche Ritchie Foundation now has a full slate of commitments it must honor up to 2020. Even though the trustees shun attention and try as much as possible to operate behind the scenes, “we get a lot of requests — a lot of requests,” Brown says.

For every penny the county might have paid Hubert and Blanche Ritchie for their land, the community has gotten it back and then some.

And Brown, Ervin and Menius can’t help but smile, thinking about their friend Hubert sneaking into all those Rowan County Fairs.

“We paid the fairgrounds back, too,” Brown says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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