Thomas E. Richards, who started his long association with Pitt as an economics student and star basketball player in the 1970s and ended as the current chair of the University Board of Trustees, died on Oct. 28, 2021, in UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside following a hard-fought battle with cancer.
Under the University’s bylaws, the vice chair with the most seniority on the board exercises the duties and responsibilities of the chair in this circumstance. Accordingly, Mary Ellen Callahan, chief of staff for the deputy secretary at U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will assume those duties, supported by the other vice chair, Lou Cestello, PNC head of regional markets and regional president.
“The University of Pittsburgh community loved Tom Richards as much as Tom Richards loved the University of Pittsburgh. From the basketball court to the boardroom, he spent decades contributing to Pitt’s success and growing his personal and professional fan club along the way,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said.
Born on Nov. 8, 1954, in Aliquippa, Richards scored 63 points in his final basketball game for Moon High School and then brought his talents to Pitt, where he served as the starting point guard for the Panthers during the 1973-74 season, when the team had a 22-game winning streak and made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament (read more about his basketball career in the Tribune-Review).
In 1976, during his senior year at Pitt, Richards earned the Blue-Gold Award — which celebrates student-athletes who epitomize excellence in academics, athletics, leadership and citizenship — and had his name etched into the Varsity Walk that connects the Cathedral of Learning to Heinz Chapel.
Heather Lyke, Pitt director of athletics, said, “Tom was a first-class ambassador for Pitt Athletics who cared deeply about the University and represented everything good in the world of college athletics. As a former Pitt basketball student-athlete, he was an incredible competitor and, most importantly, a teammate everyone would want on their team.”
“Simply put: Tom Richard has always been and will continue to be remembered as a good guy,” said friend and Pitt teammate Billy Knight, who also played and worked as an executive in the NBA.
After earning a master’s degree in management from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Richards spent 45 years in the technology industry. including nearly two decades at Bell Atlantic and turns serving as the executive vice president of Ameritech, chair and chief executive officer of Clear Communications, and executive vice president and chief operating officer of Quest Communications.
In 2009, Richards joined CDW and assumed the roles of president and chief executive officer two years later. Under Richards’ watch, CDW’s annual revenue rose from $9.6 billion in 2011 to more than $16 billion at the time of his retirement in 2018.
“Tom was an inspirational leader to all over his long career with CDW,” said Christine Leahy, CEO of CDW. “Tom brought wisdom as a businessperson, humility as a leader, strength of character as a friend and compassion as a person. What I will take from him above all else is his unwavering belief and ability to see the possibilities in others. Under Tom’s leadership, people blossomed.”
Throughout the years, Richards kept close ties with Pittsburgh and Pitt. In 2001, he and his wife, Mary Beth, founded Little Panthers, an organization in Upper St. Clair devoted to teaching boys and girls how to play basketball. The couple also were frequent fans in the stands at Pitt Athletics events and established the Tom and Mary Beth Richards Men’s Basketball Scholarship in 2011.
He was elected to the Pitt Board of Trustees in 2011. In the years that followed, Richards served on several committees, including the Athletics, Audit and Governance and Nominating. He also chaired the Risk and Compliance Committee for five years and was a member of the School of Information Sciences Board of Visitors. In 2019, Richards was voted as chair-elect of the Board of Trustees and assumed the role of chair in 2020. He was re-elected to the position earlier this year for a one-year term.
“Tom was that unique combination of brilliant strategist, inspiring leader and all-around nice guy. Every team and organization in which he was part is better for his contributions,” said Mary Ellen Callahan, vice chair for the Pitt Board of Trustees who will fill in at the chair position.
Mark Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus, remembers Richards as an extraordinarily talented person who succeeded at everything he did. “Throughout his life, he stood as an inspiring reminder that being a great leader begins with being a good person. I thought the world of Tom; knowing him was a blessing for me.”
Eva Tansky Blum, former chair for the Board of Trustees, worked closely with Richards when he was chair-elect.
“His experience as the CEO of a national company and a member of many other boards made him uniquely suited to lead Pitt. As an alumnus, Tom cared deeply about the University and gave us wise counsel,” she said. “Tom’s kindness and humility were evident in the way he interacted with all those around him. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and I feel honored to have been his friend. We have lost a true leader.”
Richards also was on UPMC’s board since in 2019 and assumed the role of first vice chairperson in 2020. Outside of Pittsburgh, he served on the board of directors of Northern Trust and Bell Canada and was a member of the Economic and Executives’ Clubs of Chicago. He was a former trustee of Rush University Medical Center and a board member and chair of Junior Achievement of Chicago.
Richards is survived by his wife of 43 years, Mary Beth, who also played basketball at Pitt, and two children, son Jason, who served on the staffs of three Pitt coaches, and daughter Lindsay, a McDonald’s All-American at Iowa and a former assistant coach at Duquesne and Pitt.
The Richards family is hosting a visitation for friends at the John A. Freyvogel Sons, Inc., from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 10 and 11. A memorial service and public celebration of Richards’ life is scheduled for 10 a.m. Nov. 12, at Heinz Memorial Chapel in Oakland.
In honor of Richards' memory, his family has identified three potential donation recipients in lieu of flowers: the Stanley M. Marks Endowed Research Fund at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center; the Pitt Men’s Basketball Championship Fund via the University’s Division of Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement at P.O. Box 640093, Pittsburgh, PA 15264 (checks made payable to the University of Pittsburgh, with the preferred fund designated); or the Willow Creek Community Church at 67 Algonquin Road, South Barrington, IL 60010.