On any given day, millions of people gamble on the slim chance of winning millions in state lotteries. Few of them ever get a dime, but still spend considerable time daydreaming about what theyd do with all that money.
Jabie Hardin hasnt had to wonder what it would be like to have money to spend. As founder of Hardins-Sysco Food Services, Inc., Hardin built an empire that has made him a very wealthy man.
Before he built that company, though, Hardin drove the dirt roads of Columbia County in a school bus, delivering children to schools in a system his father served as superintendent.
Jabez Hardin Sr. was an entrepreneur who lost everything in the Depression, then rebuilt his life with an education at the University of Georgia. While John Pierce Blanchard generally receives greater credit for shepherding Columbia County schools into the modern era, it was Hardin Sr. who laid the foundation for that school system and brought in Blanchard as his protg.
Hardins son laid his own foundations, building and merging in the food service business until he created the Southeasts largest such company.
It wasnt through a lottery that Hardin amassed his fortune, but with hard work and perseverance. His efforts have rewarded him not just with wealth, but with the opportunity to spend his money in ways which cement a legacy for him and his family name.
Hardin endowed a mathematics chair at the University of Memphis, in the town he now calls home. The award is in memory of his only child, Jabez Hardin III, who died in 1985. He also endowed a journalism scholarship at the university, and has donated millions to the Memphis Zoo, the citys library and other organizations.
Columbia County students also are among the many beneficiaries of Hardins generosity. In 1986, Hardin established the Jabez Sanford Hardin Scholarship Fund. Since the first scholarships were awarded in 1988, 179 Columbia County students have received annual grants.
The students received $1,000 for college per year - every year, as long as they kept up their grades - until 1998, when the endowment grew large enough to double the annual award. Each year, five new students are added to the recipient list. All told, those students have received $236,667 since the funds inception, according to Hardins nephew, Chuck, an Evans resident who chairs the scholarship committee.
But Jabez Hardins generosity to Columbia County doesnt end with the scholarships - though that program already has earned him eternal gratitude from his native community. In another overwhelming gift, Hardin is donating $500,000 in his fathers memory toward expansion of the new Columbia County library. The countys library board has voted to immortalize the contribution with a name: The Jabez Sanford Hardin Community Arts Center.
Among the many valuable lessons my Daddy taught me was this one: if you take anything away from the land, put something back, Hardin says. He would take me along while riding over the farm and point out a field where cotton had been harvested and now was being sown with grass to renourish the soil. This gift is the same idea: the community where I was raised gave me a great deal to take with me. I wanted to put something back.
While board chairman Jeff Hardin (no relation) says the contribution will enable a modest expansion, the reality is that performing arts center will be not just a centerpiece of the new Evans facility, but of Evans itself. It is an incredible gift from a man who has never forgotten his home.
A formal announcement of Hardins gift will come soon, and county officials plan a celebratory reception in hopes of a visit from the 90-year-old philanthropist.
If he makes the trip, Jabie Hardin deserves a heros welcome. He has used his hard-earned fortune to help make the world and the county of his birth a better place.
Its more than money. He has earned a legacy - and the gratitude of a community humbled that he remembers us.
(Barry L. Paschal is opinions editor of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barrypaschal@ yahoo.com.)
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