Sol W. Rawls Jr., champion of Franklin, dies at 98

Published 10:05 am Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sol Waite Rawls Jr.’s life was rich in selfless service, especially to the city of Franklin, which he so loved. But now he has taken rest from his labors. The renown businessman and philanthropist died in his home “Woods Hill” on Sunday, Jan. 28, at age 98.

His work ethic and drive for community service undoubtedly had its roots in his family and education. His father, Sol W. Rawls Sr., founded businesses that included distributing Gulf oil and establishing the first auto dealership in the area. Among other things, the senior Rawls was active at Franklin Baptist Church, the town council and Franklin Rotary Club. His legacy lived on through his son’s work at S.R. Rawls Inc., which the son led from 1964 to 1994 before selling it to loyal employees in 1997.

He treasured his time at Virginia Military Institute, where he earned a chemistry degree in 1940, and would continue to serve his alma mater in numerous capacities throughout his entire life. The discipline he learned at his beloved VMI served him well in the United States Army during World War II. Rawls achieved the rank of major and was awarded the Army Commendation Ribbon.

On May 15, 2000, he became only the 10th person to receive the school’s New Market Medal. The honor was established in 1962 as a tribute to cadets who fought in the 1864 Battle of New Market. It honors an American whose life and works exemplify those cadets’ virtues of devotion, duty, honor and leadership.

Warren “Buddy” Bryan, chief operating officer of the VMI Foundation, said, “I came back to the school to work in 1976, having graduated only five years before. Mr. Rawls was president of the Board of Visitors at the time of my graduation and his name’s on my diploma. Mr. Rawls was very engaged for a long time with VMI, serving as president of the alumni association. He and Sen. Elmon T. Gray of Waverly co-chaired the campaign to raise money for the school.”

Another VMI alumnus connected to Rawls is Harry Warner of Lexington. They met when Warner had come back in 1978 to run the foundation, which is a private fundraising and endowment agency for the school. They and Gray initiated the campaign, which lasted about 12 years in phases.

“We became a trio. I was very close to both of those gentlemen calling on prospects for the campaign,” said Warner. Afterward, he and his wife periodically traveled with the Rawls or visited Franklin.

“They were just two great guys. …  My wife and I saw Rawls about six weeks ago. Of course, mentally he was fine. … I was distressed when he died, but it didn’t surprise me given his age.”

Back in Franklin, Rawls was involved one way or another with several projects, boards or committees all intended to serve the people. The Chamber of Commerce and Southampton Memorial Hospital immediately come to mind.

Teresa Beale, the executive director of the Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce, said, “Sol was the Chamber’s founding president and served as president for the first three years He donated our office building to us in 2010.

“The community has lost a treasured friend. As a great leader and visionary he didn’t just talk about how to enhance our community; he brought people together and made it happen. His passion for his beloved community continued time after time, project after project. Sol was a respected mentor and friend and I will miss him dearly.”

During the 50th anniversary celebration of SMH in 2013, Dr. Robert G. Edwards said of him, “He gave extraordinarily of his time, energy and resources to make sure that Southampton and Franklin would have first-class medical facilities.”

Rawls served on the hospital board as chairman and president, a position he also held for the Raiford Memorial Hospital in the 1950s.

Daniel Balfour of Richmond, a retired judge who hails from Franklin, said the gentleman “was a giant in the Franklin city and county area and also the state of Virginia. He did so many things locally as well as in the state,” and referenced another accomplishment, the community college system in Virginia.

“He’s done so much,” Balfour said. “He probably could have been governor.”

The judge continued, “He also did a lot of things quietly, such as improving schools and race relations.  I remember growing up that he was one of the community leaders that got things done.”

Balfour also recalled being a teenaged member of the Franklin Civil War Roundtable, which is where he learned to respect Rawls, who hosted the group at the cabin at his home.

“He was a proud VMI man,” the judge said. “He was just a real Virginia gentlemen of the first order.”

Clyde Parker, who also had a considerable association with Rawls and his family, would certainly agree.

“The Rawls family and mine goes back many, many decades,” Parker said. “My father started working for Sol Rawls Sr. in 1928 when he hired him to operate a service station in Dreweryville. He was a farm boy in Capron and had just married. He later came to Franklin and handled the one on Main Street.”

The Parkers first lived on the corner of First Avenue and High Street. Three years later they moved to the Rawls’ dairy, Hill View Farm, where Clyde was reared. Not coincidentally, this was where the YMCA and hospital would eventually be built.

The Parkers and Rawls’ relationship was not a social one, but a close one nonetheless.

“There have been a lot of good opportunities to associate as far as Franklin and Southampton County history.” Parker said. “I went to visit with him quite often to learn about things or fill in gaps, which made things a lot clearer. His passing was not a total shock. I actually visited him two weeks ago. We talked about some of the old stuff and lot of times we’d touch on some of the current stuff — what happened in the past and how it has affected more recent times.”

Parker remembered that when the St. Regis Paper Company decided to leave in 1954, Sol Rawls Jr. and his uncle, James L. Camp Jr., got together and went to New York. They not only persuaded the business not to leave, but to also create a modern manufacturing plant. That saved the jobs of 250 to 300 employees — many of them women.

“If it hadn’t been for Sol Rawls’ direct leadership, Regis would have left,” said Parker. He added that the company’s staying — which lasted until 1983 — eventually helped Armory Drive to be created.

He also mentioned that Rawls had also facilitated behind the scenes the founding of Roger Drake’s Franklin Equipment Company in 1962.

In 1999, Rawls was instrumental in setting up a fund for businesses to apply for after the flood of that year.

“He’s done a huge amount for this community,” said Parker. “A good part of what his predecessors gleaned from this community he put back over the years through the hospital, land, the YMCA and the country club.

“Just about anything that happened around here he was involved within in some way.”