Nicole Reddig, a Bucknell Institute of Public Policy (BIPP) intern, recently had the opportunity to interview Tom Richards, a BIPP Advisory Board member and graduate of Bucknell’s Class of 1965.
Why did you decide to become an Advisory Board member for BIPP?
I was asked to address the pre-law students and, because of my background, that led to BIPP. I am not sure how this get started, but probably through the development people. As you can see from my background, I have been involved in public policy for some time and BIPP was a natural extension of that involvement.
Early in your career, you were president of RGS Energy Group, and before that, their general counsel after spending 20 years practicing civil litigation for another law firm. What did you do in those roles?
After graduating from Cornell Law School, I went to work for Nixon Hargrave (now Nixon Peabody), a large Rochester law firm that grew to have offices in several locations in the eastern US while I was there. I was a commercial litigator for the 20 years that I remained there, but also became involved in the firm management, eventually becoming the managing partner. I had done some work for the local utility -Rochester Gas & Electric (“RG&E”) – and was offered the opportunity to join the company as General Counsel with the opportunity to move into general management. Although I was comfortable at the law firm, I was at a point in my life where a change was appealing. I joined RG&E at a time when the utility industry was being deregulated. It resulted in a significant restructuring of the company, with some traditional utility functions going away and the broadening of the business into a general energy provider that became RGS Energy Group. Along the way I held a number of positions and eventually became the President and Chairman of the Board. When the company was sold, I was out of a job and that led to my involvement in public service.
I read that you later were Mayor of the City of Rochester. What led you to run for that position? Can you talk a bit about what your experience as mayor was like?
After I left RGS I was involved in organizing a local economic development effort. It was a natural outgrowth from my utility experience, where the business is geographically defined and significantly impacted by general economic conditions. A man I knew (he was the former police chief) was elected Mayor and asked me to join his administration as Corporation Counsel (the city’s attorney). That seemed like an interesting thing to do and I agreed to serve for a couple of years. One thing led to another and I was the Deputy Mayor in his second term when he was elected Lt. Governor of New York. I served as interim Mayor and then ran for and was elected Mayor. It was largely an accident, rather than something I aspired to. Rochester is a northeastern city that had a largely industrial based economy and has suffered from the loss of that base, particularly the failure of Kodak. As a result, the principal challenge of my administration was in economic development.
Currently, in addition to being on the BIPP Advisory Board, you are also on the Rochester Joint School Construction Board. What projects are you working on?
The Board was created by State legislation to organize and direct the modernization of the City’s public school buildings, many of which are old. It is a multi-phase multi-year project, largely funded by the State, that will invest more than a billion dollars when it is complete in about 5 years.
Did you always plan on pursuing a career in law and public service? What did you major in at Bucknell and why?
I didn’t always plan on a law or public service career. I majored in education at Bucknell and planned on being a high school teacher. However, when I graduated in 1965 the Vietnam War and the draft were in full swing and I wound up enlisting in the Navy officer training program. After 4 years in the Navy, including a tour in Vietnam as officer-in charge of a patrol boat, my interests had changed. After my discharge from the Navy, I got married (to another Bucknell graduate) and went to law school.
Were you involved with any activities and organizations on campus?
My time at Bucknell was in the height of the fraternity era. I was an SAE and its president in my senior year. As a result of some family related circumstances, I spent the first semester of my junior year at a black student college (Virginia Union) in Richmond. It was a dramatic time to be there, when Kennedy was assassinated, and the civil rights struggle was gaining momentum.
What advice do you have for current students at the University?
As you can see from the information above, my career was not the result of a grand plan or careful preparation. It is hard to draw much advice for current students from it, except maybe to stay loose and take your opportunities as they come. I will say that dedicated and informed public service can provide a satisfying and much needed career. It is important work with a significant intellectual component that is often overlooked.