Thomas B. Pearce | Legacy of Leadership Profile

A profile of Thomas Butler Pearce.

(1888–1947)

Tom Pearce built a small wholesale produce business into one of the nation's largest food distribution companies and still found time to serve his community and state as a tireless civic worker and public servant.    

His career was as colorful as it was diverse. He was at various times president of Pearce–Young–Angel Company, South Carolina's youngest state senator, a candidate for governor, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and chairman of the South Carolina Public Service Authority and the State Development Board.

Thomas Butler Pearce was born July 3, 1888, in Decatur County, Georgia, the son of C. C. and Lillian Pearce. At the age of 15, he entered his father's produce business as a warehouse worker. He quickly became the company's top salesman and, at age 19, was manager of C. C. Pearce & Company.

At age 20, young Pearce moved to Spartanburg and opened a new business later known as Pearce–Young–Angel Company in Spartanburg and Greenville, and, three years later, he became general operations manager of C. C. Pearce & Company and Pearce–Young–Angel in Columbia. In 1919, he became president and chief executive officer of the entire operation and merged all South Carolina operations under one name, Pearce-Young-Angel Company.    

Pearce expanded the business into Greenwood, Chester, and Orangeburg in South Carolina, Asheville in North Carolina, and Augusta in Georgia. Pearce–Young–Angel became recognized as the leading fresh fruit and vegetable distributor in the Southeast. Today, PYA/Monarch, with annual sales of more than $2 billion, is a subsidiary of Sara Lee Corporation.

As a spinoff from his work, Pearce served as president of the United States Apple Association and was on the board of directors of the United States Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association for 20 years.

He was elected to the state Senate at age 28, becoming the youngest member at the time, and served for eight years. He was known as a "liberal" before the label was negatively perceived and introduced the first bill to limit to 52 the weekly working hours in textile mills.

In 1931, he was chairman of a committee to investigate electrical rates, and his controversial report triggered the state's Electrical Utilities Act of 1932, under which rates were reduced. Pearce ran for governor in 1934 on a platform of businesslike government and fairness to all people. Many believed that animosity toward his report on utility rates contributed to his defeat.

Pearce was a personal friend and strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1933 named him chairman of the South Carolina Advisory Board to the Public Works Administration.

Because of Pearce's crusade for cheaper power, Governor Burnet Maybank appointed him chairman of the South Carolina Public Service Authority, which supervised the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric System. Pearce believed all South Carolinians, not just city dwellers, should have electricity.

In politics, he served as chairman of the Richland County Democratic Committee for more than 20 years and chairman of the state party for two years.

Pearce was a voracious reader, but most of his spare time was spent on the state and its people. During the taxing years of the Depression, Pearce's community service helped save more than one institution, including Columbia College, where he served on the board of trustees for 20 years. While he was chairman of the Columbia College board, Pearce and 10 other leaders guaranteed interest payment on a loan that kept the college afloat.

Although he never attended college, Pearce was an active force in higher education and avidly promoted primary and secondary education. He insisted that his four sons be "properly educated."

As chairman of the Board of Stewards, he helped guide Washington Street Methodist Church through a financial crisis, and the church met its debts and survived as a major institution. He served on the board for more than 30 years.

He was a founding member of the Kiwanis Club of Columbia, president of the Travelers' Protective Association of South Carolina, and a board member of the First National Bank of South Carolina.

During World War II, Pearce had many responsibilities, including assistant food administrator for South Carolina. He was named to the Preparedness for Peace Commission for South Carolina to reorganize the structure of state government.

After completion of the committee's work in 1943, he was named to head the newly established state Research and Development Board, on which he served until his death. He particularly pushed development of small industries in the state. Foreseeing that aviation was vital, he chaired the Columbia Chamber of Commerce Aviation Committee.

Pearce encouraged young men and women to take an active part in business, the professions, and politics. Sigma Nu at the University of South Carolina made him an honorary member. Young lawyers often visited him for advice and to talk about Democratic Party affairs.

Despite his many commitments to job, community, and state, Pearce was a consummate family man. He was married to the former Anna Verina Tribble, a music graduate of Anderson College. They were the parents of sons Tom, Jr., Phil, James T., and R. Roy Pearce.

After Tom Pearce died April 27, 1947, at the age of 59, major state leaders lauded him as a man well known for "his rugged honesty, his courageous character, his fairness, and his liberal philosophy."    

He was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1992.   

© 1999 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame