There is a particular piece of land.
It is just north of here along the Sangamon River and east of the Hazen Bridge.
And on a rise along County Road 2600N just east of the Hazen Bridge, there is a sign posted by the U of I Foundation that a man named “Jack Commodore Richmond” donated this particular piece of land to the U of I in 1994 “in honor of his parents and grandfather.”
And on the west end of the Hazen Bridge, it says the land surrounding the bridge was donated to Champaign County’s Preservation and Conservation Association in 1993 by the same man.
So I wondered: what is the measure of a man who could have owned such a beautiful piece of land only to give so much of it away?
And thus unfolded a story of America and a man who embodied a spirit that should inspire us all.
The Richmonds never lived on this land.
But this particular piece of land was originally “managed” by pioneer Champaign County landowner JW Richmond. JW Richmond moved to Champaign County from Tazewell County in 1860 and at the age of 15, managed what was then a 1500 acre tract of land south of Fisher.
According to his obituary, JW Richmond came to be an “extensive farmer, stock raiser and he bore an enviable reputation as a keen financier.” He raised and sold Belgian horses, imported from Europe, on the land after visiting “the old country” several times.
JW Richmond was married in 1884 and had several children, one named Arthur Dean. He eventually expanded his holdings to over 3,000 acres around Champaign County and “succeeded in laying up something for himself”.
JW Richmond passed away a wealthy, successful and highly regarded man at the still young age of 58 on February 19, 1903.
Arthur Dean Richmond married Mildred Hummel and their son Jack Commodore Richmond was born on September 16, 1917.
But success for the Richmonds was not to last. During the Depression, the Richmonds lost nearly everything. Jack’s family went without electricity, running water, or a telephone (land line or cell!). And they lost much, but not all, of their land. But not this particular piece of land.
Deprivation was to inform Jack Richmond for the rest of his life. But poverty was not in his genes.
Jack went to the U of I, and in his freshman year became a gymnast. But he broke his sternum in a dismount from the rings, ending his gymnastics career before it really began.
Never one to let setback slow him down, Jack focused on weight training, but weights were not popular and weights were non-existent at the U of I. He convinced the athletic director to buy a set of Olympic weights and a sport was born.
Jack’s physical fitness helped him get jobs as a railroad worker, wrecking crew member, meat truck driver, corn detasseler, lifeguard, bouncer, and even as a model for the U of I art school.
He graduated in 1943 with a degree in agriculture and joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service and worked as a county farm planner.
In 1949, Jack started one of the first Christmas tree plantations in Central Illinois on this particular piece of land. Not satisfied to be a mere planter, he helped form the Illinois Christmas Tree Association.
Later, Jack became a quite successful salesman for Marchant Calculators (later to become SCM). And in the early 70’s he “dabbled” in the stock market.
Like his grandfather, Jack “developed an enviable reputation as a keen financier,” and he was to become a very wealthy man indeed. But his childhood experience of deprivation made Jack a humble and highly appreciative man of all who helped him out along the way. Jack’s extraordinary wealth was matched only by his generosity.
Jack married Marjorie Laird in 1988, and together they became very generous donors to the U of I. They endowed the men’s basketball coach’s position and they funded a number of scholarships for U of I athletes.
They donated the Richmond Journalism Teaching Studio next to WILL’s home at Campbell Hall in 1998. If you listen to WILL, Jack and Marjorie Laird are often-mentioned as the name of the studio they are broadcasting from.
Jack’s donations formed the foundation of Champaign County’s courthouse bell tower restoration project. He even donated $44,000 for the gargoyles (and when he got them, Jack reportedly declared “they’re not ugly enough”).
But back to our particular piece of land. Over the years, this particular piece of land was sold off until only a few hundred acres remained.
In 1993, the single-lane Hazen Bridge at the southwest corner of the Richmond land was slated for destruction as a new two-lane concrete bridge was being constructed. The Richmond’s donation of five acres of this land to PACA was instrumental in saving this historic relic, now on the National Register of Historic Places and stewarded by the USRC.
And then in 1994, Jack Richmond donated the final 190 acres of this particular land to his beloved U of I.
Jack Richmond passed away a wealthy, successful and highly regarded man at the ripe old age of 93 on April 7, 2011, and thus ends the story of Jack Commodore Richmond. An American success story of a family and of a man that should inspire us all.
But this is not the end of our story, for our particular piece of land has an intriguing epilogue.
Several years later, the U of I Foundation sold the donated Richmond land on the condition that a sign honoring the landowners and the Richmond family would remain, which it does to this day on County Road 2600N.
Now the particular piece of land was owned by another U of I whiz-kid, Bruce Artwick, the highly-regarded developer of one of the very first (and very successful) 3-D visu
al game programs for personal computers, ‘Flight Simulator’.
Artwick made his fortune in the computer game business, selling Flight Simulator to Microsoft in 1982. In the 90’s, Artwick used his wealth to return from his home in the Silicon Valley to the Sangamon River in Champaign County.
He purchased this particular piece of land and constructed a spacious, elaborate distinctive arts and crafts style country mansion made with “biblical stone” and including a widow’s walk and a personal airstrip.
And now Artwick is apparently moving on and this particular piece of land is for sale for $14.9 million.
So in some sense, this column might be considered a long real estate ad for this particular piece of land (and by the way, I’d gladly accept even a mere 1% commission from any sale arising from this column).
But I’m pretty sure that’s a little more than the lifetime income of the average Notes from the River reader. However, just in case anyone has some spare cash lying around, they might consider a purchase.
After all, so far, this particular piece of land has been associated with some pretty amazing people with some pretty amazing and inspiring American success stories. Maybe you could be next.
Appeared as “Notes from the River” Mahomet Citizen, September 5, 2013, by Scott Hays