John Tydings—the business and civic leader who helped transform the Washington region from a backwater to a booming business center over the past three decades—passed away Saturday evening. He was 72.
Tydings was a quiet but constant force behind the scenes as Washington changed from a region reliant on the federal government to one where the private sector drives growth and employment. Born in Anacostia, he worked for Pepco but made his mark with the Greater Washington Board of Trade. He worked with the board for 32 years, serving as president and chief executive for 24 of them. He stepped down in 2002.
Tydings’s devotion to his hometown set him apart.
“First of all, he loved the city,” says Linda Rabbitt, CEO of Rand Construction, who served as Board of Trade chair when Tydings ran it. “He was the first one to talk about regionalism and give it meaning.”
Tydings, who relied on relationships and person-to-person contact as the foundation for making progress, helped found Leadership Greater Washington in 1986. Each year it brings together politicians, heads of nonprofits, religious organizations, media, and banking, and other decision-makers in an effort to create bonds citywide.
Tydings is remembered as a powerful leader who never lost contact with his working-class roots in the District. “Not only was John one of the good guys,” Jim Dinegar, the Board of Trade’s president, told Washingtonian, “[but] in working at the highest levels, he never let it go to his head.”
In my most recent interview with Tydings, he talked about growing up in Anacostia with whites, blacks, Jews, and Christians, many of whom became lifelong friends. His connections to the city’s African-American leaders were both professional and personal. He was one of the few business leaders to visit Marion Barry when he served his six months in jail in 1990 for possession of crack cocaine. But he wasn’t shy about criticizing Barry and other DC leaders for failing to live up their potential and letting down the city in the process.
Tydings loved connecting rich and poor, black and white, business and government.
“He liked to get politicians and public-policy people taking to business leaders to solve problems,” says Rabbitt. “He knew who to contact at any give time to make things happen. He was efficient.”
And he was hard-working. “You could not get up any morning and out-read or out-think John Tydings,” says Rabbitt. “He was always on his game.”
“Greater Washington is better because John cared deeply about here,” Dinegar said in a statement. “He cared about its people, its reputation, its attractiveness, its business climate, its hospitality, and so much more.”
Tydings is survived by his wife, Donna, two children, and four grandchildren. The family said he died from prion disease, a degenerative brain disorder. A funeral mass will be held Thursday at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, Maryland. A reception will follow at Avenel Country Club.