HARTSVILLE, S.C. – Richard A. “Dick” Puffer is a community leader who builds relationships through effective communication. His career spans decades as a communicator from educator, journalist, director of corporate communications, journalism professor to executive director of The Byerly Foundation in Hartsville.
“Knowing your audience is a key idea, and it helps you break a lot of boundaries,” he said. “It helps you grow.”
A six-month travel adventure around the world in the early 1970s helped shape Puffer’s views of the world and of people.
“People all over the world are people first,” he said. “They gave me a universal view. I also got a little of that education in Vietnam.”
He was in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1968 to 1970. He was commissioned as a lieutenant, and his first job in Vietnam was as a platoon commander. His tour of duty was interrupted when he was wounded on July 3, 1969 and medevacked to Japan. He was back in Vietnam in August, serving two more months in the country.
“I got blown up with a booby trap,” he said.
For a six-month period afterward, he traveled from Iceland to Nepal.
He said that was a life-altering experience.
When he got back from traveling, the economy was bad, he said.
“There were no jobs,” Puffer said. “I hadn’t gotten into law school.”
And he didn’t want to go on unemployment.
“I hated the idea of being unemployed,” he said.
He had been reading about the theory of open education when an elementary school principal at a school in Bishopville visiting relatives in New York placed an ad in a New York newspaper for teachers. He saw the ad and decided to apply.
“I knew nothing about teaching,” he said.
South Carolina was never the place he thought he would end up, but he said you “grow where you are planted.”
“It is something I have taken full advantage of,” Puffer said.
He left his hometown of Rome, New York, to start a life in South Carolina as a teacher in Lee County.
He knew very little about the area he was about to embrace and certainly never dreamed at the time that it would be his home throughout his career, for the birth of his children and grandchildren and even home into retirement age.
He said it took some time for him to adjust to the culture and the people, but it might have taken them longer to adjust to him.
“I was a Yankee, Catholic, hippy,” he said.
He taught for one year.
“I met my wife, Sylvia, at the school,” he said. “She was the music teacher. She is why I stayed.”
They married in 1974.
“To this day, teaching elementary school was the hardest job I have had,” he said. “They (the children) were so curious and interested.
“Sylvia saw an ad for a sports writer at the Messenger, and Joe Wiggins (owner/publisher) interviewed me on a Thursday and offered me the job on Friday,” he said.” I took the job, and about three hours later my professor offered me an assistantship that would have paid most of my college. Also a letter came in the mail accepting me to law school.”
Not wanting to go back on his word, Puffer became a general assignment reporter and sports writer for the Hartsville Messenger. He was later named news editor. He worked for the paper from 1973 to 1979 and said he learned a lot about Hartsville.
“While covering sports for the Messenger, I got to know Hartsville,” he said. “I loved the reporting.”
The newspaper business was in his blood from an early age.
Puffer had been a paperboy in his youth. He had a paper route in New York from eighth grade to his senior year in high school.
“The best education in business that I have had was as a paperboy,” he said. “I learned everything I needed to know about business as a paperboy.”
After receiving his Master of Communication degree from the University of South Carolina, he was hired by Sonoco Products Company in its communications department and eventually became the director of corporate communications. He worked for Sonoco one month shy of 20 years.
He said being part of an international company and in charge of communications was an eye opener all the time.
During that time he served on the Darlington County Board of Education from 1986-96.
“Even as a Yankee,” he said, “I got elected to school board.”
A 16-year tenure at Coker College began in January 2000, where he taught communication courses. He had been an adjunct teacher for many years prior. He retired in May 2016.
“College teaching may be the best career choice I ever made,” he said. “I’m still friends with many of my former Coker students.”
In March of 2000, Puffer took on extra duties when he accepted the position as executive director of the Byerly Foundation. He has only been the second person in that position. He succeeded Jo Coxe, who was the first director.
Grant-making is part of his job at The Byerly Foundation. It is helping people build a community in Hartsville. The foundation’s major mission is to make Hartsville one of the best places to live, work and raise a family, he said. The board of 11 votes on grant applications from organizations, schools and others.
“I work at the board’s pleasure in the grant cycle,” Puffer said.
He said it has been amazing watching Hartsville grow over the course of his career. He said he has enjoyed getting to know different people from his varied career.
“I was never a person to stay in one place, but my career was all in Hartsville,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I have enjoyed all but the teaching (in elementary school).”
He said although he didn’t enjoy that first job in South Carolina, he learned a lot.
“If I had one calling, it was teaching at the college level,” he said.
In addition to his position at The Byerly Foundation, Puffer also serves the community as a member of the Hartsville United Way board. And he is a member of the Hartsville Rotary Club.
In his spare time, he is an avid reader and exercise enthusiast.
He said everybody needs to keep moving no matter their age.
Puffer has always maintained an exercise regime. At his peak, he said he ran three miles at a pace of seven minutes per mile.
“When I had to stop running, I discovered books on tapes,” he said. “I wanted to keep walking to listen to books. Now I listen more than I read.”
He has been a member of the F3 workout group in Hartsville for approximately 3½ years. F3 stands for Fitness, Faith and Fellowship, and the group targets men 18 and older with the average age about 43, he said.
“They have let me hang out with them,” he said.
He said it is a great way to meet people and expand leadership opportunities for men.
“With F3, the competition is with me to open the door to go exercise,” he said.
He is a grandfather and also enjoys spending time with his two daughters and their families.
His oldest daughter, Eve, is a member of the Duke University faculty. His youngest daughter, Inga, is an elementary school teacher in Greenville. Sylvia taught music at Hartsville Junior High and at St. John’s Elementary School before retiring several years ago.