[Editor’s note: To see video excerpts of PJ’s interview with Billy T. Woodard, click here.]
FUQUAY-VARINA, N.C. – In 1940, at age 10, Billy T. Woodard was riding home on a school bus in rural northern Johnston County one afternoon when the bus dropped off three children at the scorched remains of what had been their home.
In response to the fire, neighbors in the small community of Micro, most of them tenant farmers like Woodard’s parents, gave the suddenly-homeless family food, clothing, a place to sleep and what little cash they had on hand.
“The people who were giving the gifts seemed as happy as the people receiving them,” says Woodard, vice chairman of Fidelity Bank in Fuquay-Varina. “I learned it was rewarding to share with other people. That was the thing that you should remember in life.”
Giving back and helping people have been central to Woodard’s career as a banker and to his work as a long-time board member of the North Carolina Community Foundation.
This year, the foundation’s board of directors gave Woodard the Lewis R. Holding Philanthropic Leadership Award, presented to a foundation volunteer who has demonstrated exceptional leadership resulting in outstanding stewardship and growth.
Woodard’s roles with the foundation and the bank both are rooted in his relationship with the family of the late Lewis R. “Snow” Holding, who started the foundation and whose family holds the controlling interest in Fidelity Bank.
Woodard, who as a young child helped his parents with farm chores, quips that a big lesson he learned on the farm was “to try to get an education and get off the farm.”
With the support of his high-school math teacher, who encouraged him to become a teacher himself, Woodard applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was admitted, becoming the first person in his family to go to college.
After earning enough credits to major in math, and serving two years in the U.S. Army in Korea, he decided to major in business, and graduated in the same class as Hugh McColl, the retired CEO of Bank of America.
In the final semester of his senior year, Woodard wrote a letter to Robert P. Holding Sr., who headed First Citizens Bank, then based in Smithfield.
As a result of that letter, First Citizens hired Woodard in its newly-formed department making auto loans, and in the early 1960s he took a job at the Bank of Biscoe, which the Holding family owned.
In 1977, Woodard was named president of Fidelity Bank, which had been formed in 1970 through the merger of the Bank of Biscoe and the Bank of Fuquay, also owned by the Holding family.
Giving back to the community was part of the corporate culture at First Citizens and at Fidelity Bank, Woodard says.
“We would give back to the communities through serving in clubs and volunteering,” he says. “And the bank gave to charities.”
In the 1980s, Lewis Holding, a son of Robert Holding Sr., began talking to Woodard about his idea of creating a foundation that would help people in rural counties typically with no local foundations pool their funds and help decide how to spend those dollars to address local needs.
“The idea was to allow people of all means to make contributions to their communities,” Woodard says.
The result was the North Carolina Community Foundation.
Holding enlisted Woodard to help recruit founding donors for local affiliates of the foundation in Granville, Harnett, Hoke, Montgomery and Moore counties.
Woodard, who has served on the foundation’s statewide board since its inception in 1993 and as its secretary for 15 years, has focused much of his efforts on soliciting donations for an endowment to support operations at the foundation, which handles administrative services for its local affiliates.
By paying for operating expenses such as salaries and legal and accounting services, Woodard says, the operating endowment serves as the foundation’s “backbone.”
Several banks in the state supported the effort to create the operating endowment, including First Citizens, Fidelity, Southern National, BB&T, Wachovia, Southern Bank and North Carolina National Bank, now Bank of America.
Woodard himself has made several personal contributions to the operating endowment.
With over $100 million in assets, the foundation operates with 60 affiliates that serve 66 counties and has made nearly $63 million in grants since it was formed in 1988.
Holding’s vision, Woodard says, was to help local communities create local endowments that would grow over time, using investment income to make grants while creating a permanent source of funds to support local causes.
Holding “was more interested in looking at what people could do to help themselves,” Woodard says.
“Philanthropy is just helping others,” he says. “You should share what you have. There are people around you that need help. Through philanthropy, you can help.”