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Catching up with… S. Waite Rawls

S. Waite Rawls III has always been a Civil War buff. That’s why he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to become president of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, even if it meant walking away from a successful career in banking.

“It’s still relevant,” Rawls said of the war. “It shapes the way we live and breathe and talk today.”

There was only one thing about the job that made the Franklin native uncomfortable: the fact that the Confederacy is associated with racism in the minds of many.

“I did not want to be confused with being a racist,” said Rawls, who has been active in minority-empowerment programs throughout his career. “That was a big concern for me.”

The association of the Confederacy with racism “is a new phenomenon, and it’s a phenomenon that will pass,” he said.

Rawls, 61, said his childhood in Franklin “was like living a dream.”

“I can’t imagine growing up at a better time or in a better place,” he said. “It was like out of a storybook.”

After graduating from Franklin High School, Rawls went on to Virginia Military Institute. He had been accepted at Princeton but decided to go to VMI instead. He still remembers the reaction when he called Princeton officials to tell them of his decision.

“I’ll never forget the guy said, ‘Wow, that’s a first,’” Rawls said.

From VMI, he went on to the University of Virginia for graduate school and served in the Franklin unit of the Army National Guard for six years.

After finishing the joint law and Master of Business Administration program at UVA, Rawls got a job offer in New York City. He figured he’d stay there for a couple of years and come back to Virginia; he ended up staying 15 years.

“I did not expect to like New York,” he said. “And I really liked it.”

From New York, Rawls moved to Chicago, where, at age 39, he became the vice chairman of Continental Bank, which was the sixth-largest in the country at the time.

In 2004, Rawls became president of the Museum of the Confederacy. He still remembers his first trip to the museum as a child in the 1950s.

He said the No. 1 goal of the museum is education.

“To me, the fun of bringing history to life is to expose people to stuff that either they didn’t know at all before or to expose them to something that’s counter to what they thought,” he said.

Rawls lives in Richmond. His father, Sol Rawls, still lives in Franklin.

“I admire my father more than most anybody I know because of his selflessness, or service to others,” he said. ←