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Pitt mourns the loss of Board of Trustees chair Thomas E. Richards

a man in a dark suit, blue shirt and gold tie

University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees Chair Thomas E. Richards died on Oct. 28, 2021, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following a hard-fought battle with cancer. 

He leaves behind a heartbroken but adoring family — including his wife, Mary Beth, daughter Lindsay and son Jason — as well as legions of loved ones, friends and colleagues from around the world.    

“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.  

“He was the beloved chair of our Board of Trustees, a successful businessman, a doting family man, and a cherished friend and colleague. Karen and I — like so many others — are heartbroken and are keeping Mary Beth, Lindsay and Jason in our thoughts during this difficult time.” 

It is hardly hyperbole to say that Richards lived a life that was too full and too big to capture in a few short paragraphs. 

“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,” Mary Ellen Callahan, vice chair for the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees, said. 

Born on Nov. 8, 1954, in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Richards was a chronic overachiever, scoring 63 points in his final basketball game for Moon High School. After graduation, he brought his talents to the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as the starting point guard for the Panthers and enjoyed a particularly magical 1973-74 season marked by a 22-game winning streak and a departure from the big dance just three games shy of a national championship.   

Richards also met his greatest teammate on the basketball court — Mary Beth (née Dorogy) stole his heart in high school, joined him at Pitt, scored his hand in marriage and celebrated every victory during their 43-year partnership. Among their greatest accomplishments: sharing, loving and raising their two children together.  

In 1976, during his senior year at Pitt, Richards earned the prestigious 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 Memorial Chapel on the University’s Pittsburgh campus.   

Heather Lyke, University of Pittsburgh 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. Everyone in Pitt Athletics sends our love and prayers to the entire Richards family, who have all given so much to our department.”

Richards graduated from Pitt in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and unofficial minors in working hard and staying humble. He developed a daily and lifelong habit of studying the Bible — a resource that he would come to call the greatest leadership book ever written — and found unremitting comfort and joy in his close relationship with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“Simply put: Tom Richard has always been and will continue to be remembered as a good guy,” said friend Billy Knight, former NBA basketball player and executive.

After earning a master’s degree in management from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Richards spent 45 years shaking up the technology industry. Early career stops include a nearly two-decade run 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, where he assumed the roles of president and chief executive officer in 2011 and chairman of the board of directors in 2013. Here, his career wins continued. 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. In 2013, he led CDW’s initial public offering, growing the company’s market capitalization by nearly $12 billion in just five years. A model of servant leadership, Richards’ legacy is one of humility, high standards and an unwavering belief in the potential of the team. Not surprisingly, his CDW colleagues voted him as one of Glassdoor’s highest-rated CEOs list for three years running. 

Christine Leahy, CEO of CDW, said Friday, “Tom was CDW’s CEO from 2011 to 2018 and under his leadership CDW set new standards of excellence. Tom was an inspirational leader to all over his long career with 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. His stewardship of CDW and legacy of servant leadership will continue to benefit CDW and our 11,000 coworkers in the years to come. He will be deeply missed.”

While building a successful career, loving family and worldwide network of friends and colleagues, Richards kept close ties with Pittsburgh and Pitt. In 2001, he and Mary Beth founded Little Panthers, an organization in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, devoted to teaching boys and girls how to play basketball. In 2007, Pitt’s Varsity Letter Club honored Richards with an Award of Distinction in recognition of his passion for sports and support for the greater Pittsburgh community. The couple were also frequent fans in the stands at Pitt Athletics events and established the Tom and Mary Beth Richards Men’s Basketball Scholarship in 2011.   

Richards’ love of Pitt collided with his passion for leadership in 2011, when he was elected to the University’s Board of Trustees.

Mark Nordenberg, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh, remembers Tom 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.”

In the years that followed, Richards served on several committees, including the Athletics Committee, Audit Committee and Governance and Nominating Committee. 

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 by his peers as chair-elect of the University’s Board of Trustees and assumed the role of chair in 2020 before being elected to the position again in 2021.

Eva Tansky Blum, former chair for the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees and current University director for UPMC’s Board of Directors, said she was saddened by the premature death of Richards. She worked closely with him as chair of Pitt’s Board of Trustees when Richards 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. My deepest sympathy to Tom’s family.”

Richards’ contributions to the community extend well beyond Pitt’s campus. He joined UPMC’s board in 2019 and assumed the role of first vice chairperson in 2020. 

G. Nicholas Beckwith, III, chair for UPMC’s Board of Directors, said passing is a significant loss to UPMC. “Tom was a valuable member of our board, committed to always helping in meaningful ways to lead and drive our mission globally and throughout the regions we serve. He was a bright spot in so many lives and a reliable friend.”

Outside of Pittsburgh, Tom 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 also a former trustee of Rush University Medical Center and particularly fond of his contributions as a board member and chair of Junior Achievement of Chicago — a nonprofit that leverages company partnerships to help young people thrive economically and academically.

Sandy Daffé, retired CEO at Junior Achievement of Chicago, said: “I can’t tell you how many people in our community love Tom. He was a wonderful mentor and coach in everything he did, and what he did in his many roles for Junior Achievement of Chicago was extraordinary. He was a humble leader with an unmatched sense of humor and problem solver who was passionate about providing workforce readiness and financial literacy lessons to kids. I’ll never forget the ‘little bit of Pittsburgh wisdom’ he gave me after doing a job well done: ‘If you always do what is right, you never have to worry about righting a wrong.’”

The Richards family is hosting a visitation for friends at the John A. Freyvogel Sons, Inc., Funeral Directors on Nov. 10 and 11 from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on both dates.

A memorial service and public celebration of Richards' life is scheduled for 10 a.m. Nov. 12, at Heinz Memorial Chapel in Pittsburgh. A second service is scheduled for 4 p.m. Nov. 15, at the Willow Creek Community Church’s Lakeside Auditorium (entrance D) in Barrington, Illinois. A reception will follow each service. 

In honor of Tom’s memory, the 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 Rd., South Barrington, IL 60010.