Hilton Head Island honors two as Hall of Fame givers, workers, community builders

Gene Martin as grand marshal of the 1991 St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Hilton Head Island.
Gene Martin as grand marshal of the 1991 St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Hilton Head Island. Staff file

Two business and civic leaders were inducted into the Hilton Head Island Hall of Fame Thursday at a luncheon at the Sonesta Resort.

Norris Richardson, who built a grocery store in the woods near today’s Coligny Circle and built it into Coligny Plaza with about 60 stores and restaurants, and Gene Martin, who all but gave away the store as owner-operator of the supermarket at Coligny Plaza, were inducted in the hall sponsored by the Rotary Club of Hilton Head.

The club cited attributes beyond their success in business.

“The hard work, vision and entrepreneurial spirit of Hilton Head Island business pioneer James Norris Richardson did more than create from nothing a town center and ‘downtown.’ The expansion of what was to become Coligny Plaza served as building blocks for a fledgling community, giving it a family focus and setting the table for other entrepreneurs to thrive,” it said.

And: “Gene Martin created the Hilton Head Island value of corporate volunteerism by literally ‘giving the store away.’ After taking over the Red & White Supermarket in Coligny Plaza in 1969, his name quickly became synonymous with ‘giving’ and ‘yes.’ His unheralded donations of food to numerous community programs, schools, PTAs, holiday food baskets and distressed individuals set a tone for Hilton Head and set a high bar for those who followed.”

Richardson died in 2001, but his business is still in the hands of his wife, Lois, and their surviving children, James N. “JR” Richardson Jr. and Mary Katherine Toomer.

Martin’s supermarket, which is now a Piggly Wiggly, also is in the family, run by Gene’s son, David Martin.

Inductees in the Hall of Fame, founded in 2012 to promote underlying values of the community through people who have had a lasting and extraordinary impact, are honored with bronze plaques on the grounds of the Coastal Discovery Museum on Honey Horn Plantation.

Past inductees are Charles Fraser, Fred Hack, Charlotte Heinrichs, Charles Simmons Sr., Billie Hack, Thomas C. Barnwell Jr., Ben Racusin, Dr. Peter LaMotte, Dr. Jack McConnell, Emory Campbell, Carolina “Beany” Newhall, John Curry and Isaac Wilborn.

The 2018 honorees were described by the club as follows:

Norris Richardson

Modern Hilton Head Island in many ways stands on a quiet but steady pillar named Norris Richardson.

He opened a small food store in 1956, just as development of the island dawned with the opening of the first bridge.

He became a model entrepreneur who worked hard, took risks and was fully committed to making Hilton Head succeed as a community of year-round residents.

When Norris Richardson died in 2001, Sea Pines founder Charles E. Fraser said he helped establish the family-focused tone of the island.

“Norris Richardson will forever hold a key spot among the handful of people whose work and entrepreneurial spirit built modern Hilton Head,” Fraser said.

Richardson’s development provided basic services, but also a “downtown” and a place where entrepreneurs could come make a living and in turn become pillars of the community.

Through Richardson’s vision and tenacity, the community gained a pharmacy, bank, fast-food restaurant, dry cleaners, hardware store, movie theater, ice cream shop – many of them firsts for the island’s modern era.

First Baptist Church evolved from worship services in the Richardson home, and Norris served many years as chairman of the board of deacons. Later, he helped found the North Island Baptist Church.

And his wife, Lois, became the first employee of what would become the Sea Pines Co.

“Norris had a vision,” Lois said.

Gene Martin

Gene Martin took over the Red & White Supermarket in Coligny Plaza on May 26, 1969, at the time the island’s only supermarket.

His business became a community gathering place and a touch of home and personal care to new moms and retirees who expected, and got, caviar.

His giving seemed to never end.

The Gators youth football program never had to buy supplies for its concession stand. It was donated by Martin.

For more than a decade, Martin donated all the food and wine for the Hilton Head Humane Association’s annual Valentine’s Day fundraiser, the Stay-at-Home Banquet. He was there from the beginning, and it grew to more than 1,200 meals.

Also, customers could run tabs at his store, something that helped many workers in the island’s seasonal economy.

When the Hilton Head Island Community Association honored Martin for his exceptional contributions to island citizens, it cited his “unheralded donations of foods to numerous community programs … schools, PTA, food baskets and distressed individuals.”

He once said, “I’ve lived here and raised four children here, and it’s the least I can do to help when help is needed. Yes, it gets hard, but I keep giving. Besides, I never planned or wanted to be rich.”

He served on the inaugural board of the Hilton Head Hospital as well as the board of the Chamber of Commerce and area board of the Bank of Beaufort. He was president of the Jaycees.

He has been honored with the Alice Glenn Doughtie Good Citizenship Award, and as a unanimous choice to be grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“Hilton Head is a unique scene,” he said. “Most of us have the common goal to keep it the best place in the world to live.”