Bunny S. Richardson was remembered Wednesday for being among the first women news editors in Columbia, a champion for expanding coverage of then-emerging Lexington County and later a spokeswoman for one of South Carolina’s manufacturing giants.
During a 22-year career at The Columbia Record and The State newspapers, Richardson established a reputation as a tough, fair-minded journalist with a kind soul, colleagues recalled.
Bonita Smith Richardson died Wednesday at 63 after a 31/2-year struggle with cancer. Her husband of 38 years, Randy Richardson, was with her in their Simpsonville home.
Richardson’s small stature and even temperament masked a steel will that made her the embodiment of a velvet hammer, colleagues said. She could skewer public officials in print while maintaining their trust and respect. She could be stern with reporters, who would come to love her.
“I’m most appreciative of her grace,” said Paul Osmundson, editor of The (Rock Hill) Herald, who was schooled by Richardson when she was city editor at The Columbia Record, an afternoon paper. “Journalists, especially editors, constantly face high-stress moments. But whether it was a cranky reporter or an irate source, Bunny approached the situation with equally strong levels of calmness and firmness – with a measure of humor thrown in.”
Even in her final days, Richardson’s wit showed. She chided her sister, Brownie Hart, to not be jealous that Richardson would be with their deceased parents before Hart would.
As city editor of The Record and later an assistant managing editor at The State, Richardson pushed for more coverage of Lexington County, which she had covered as a reporter. She foresaw the county evolving into one of the state’s fastest growing and developing into a stronghold for the Republican Party, which later would control S.C. politics.
“Bunny had leadership skills which cannot be taught and which can only be coached to a limited degree,” said Tom McLean, who hired Richardson when he was editor of The Record. “It is an innate talent – the ability to understand people and relate to them in such a way as to encourage and inspire others to do their best work.”
Paula Ellis – a former managing editor of The State and vice president of Knight Ridder, which owned the paper – described Richardson as “one heck of a newswoman, who rose through the ranks when journalism was mostly considered man’s work – a generous mentor and confidant. Many a journalist have her to thank for their success.”
S.C. Commerce Department Secretary Bobby Hitt was Richardson’s colleague, supervisor and friend for more than four decades. The two met in journalism school at the University of South Carolina and were desk mates at The Record.
Their personalities could not have been more different. Richardson was an even-tempered, consistent and low-key foil to the more electric Hitt.
“Her greatest strength was how she treated people. She was a natural,” said Hitt, formerly Richardson’s boss at the Columbia newspapers and at BMW in Spartanburg County.
Richardson spent 17 years at the German carmaker, which has invested more than $6 billion in its Greer plant that produces nearly 300,000 vehicles a year and employs about 8,000.
She started handling internal communications but became a large part of the automaker’s outreach to the community, Hitt said. Richardson became president of the local chamber of commerce and an education association.
Born in Columbia, Richardson grew up in the small Barnwell County town of Williston. She wrote for the Williston-Elko High student newspaper and was a scrappy guard on the school’s basketball team.
Richardson enrolled at the University of South Carolina and received a degree in journalism in 1973. She was hired by McLean at The Record in May 1973 and left The State to work for BMW in January 1995.
Richardson’s given first name was Bonita, which means “pretty” in Spanish. She was named for a maternal great-grandmother, Martha Bunita Browning, said her sister, Hart.
Two years ago, Richardson told a group of young journalists that she wanted to be remembered mostly as a teacher.
“Someone who helped young reporters and editors grow and mature,” she said. “Though I might have been tough, we were a team and cared about each other — even if we were yelling at each other on deadline.”