Richard England, Washington businessman and philanthropist, dies at 93

Laura Levine/THE WASHINGTON POST - Hechinger Chairman Richard England, right, and President John Hechinger inspected a warehouse/office complex in 1978.

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Richard England, a Washington businessman and philanthropist who helped guide the old Hechinger company as it became one of the nation’s most successful building goods and home-improvement retail chains, died April 1 at his home in the District. He was 93.

The cause was prostate cancer, said his daughter Cathy England.

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In the post-World War II “do-it-yourself” boom, the Hechinger Co. became a dominant retailer in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Mr. England, a Harvard graduate and Navy veteran, married a daughter of store founder Sidney Hechinger and rose swiftly in the business.

With Mr. England as chairman and the founder’s son, John W. Hechinger Sr., as president, the Hechinger Co. experienced tremendous growth locally and then nationally. They divided leadership duties, with Hechinger Sr. handling executive functions, including real estate, finance and accounting matters, and Mr. England presiding over the merchandising and advertising side of operations.

Hechinger Co. had 15 stores when it went public in 1972, vaulting into a multi­billion-dollar enterprise selling hardware as well as plumbing, electric and other building material supplies. The business grew to more than 115 stores — comprising Hechinger and Home Quarters Warehouse outlets — throughout the Midwest and eastern United States.

The 1975 decision by Mr. England and Hechinger Sr. to move the Hechinger Co.’s corporate offices to Prince George’s County from Northeast Washington triggered criticism that the company was “deserting” the city. In fact, the company used the 10-acre site in Northeast Washington to build what it called Hechinger Mall, which slowly drew tenants back to a neighborhood devastated by the April 1968 riots.

Mr. England said the 180,000-square-foot shopping center would “create a focus, a community shopping center in this most under­served area that will assuredly cause the rest of the H Street commercial area to blossom again.”

Lloyd D. Smith, a city activist in development matters and an official in Mayor Walter Washington’s administration, once told The Washington Post that the mall was a rare sign of hope in a blighted neighborhood. “It was tremendous in those days to build a shopping center in a run-down area,” Smith said in a 2004 interview. “It was a symbol of revitalization of the eastern side of the city.”

Starting in the 1980s, as Mr. England and Hechinger Sr. were starting to retire, the rise of giant discount chains such as Home Depot and Lowe’s were gradually luring away Hechinger Co.’s customer base. It was left largely to the next generation of their families, notably company president John W. Hechinger Jr., to navigate the fallout.

In many stories about Hechinger’s decline, business analysts said the company for years was slow to react to the whirlwind growth of the competition and the latter’s emphasis on detailed customer service. In 1997, the Hechinger family sold its namesake business to investor Leonard Green of Los Angeles and his partners for a reported $507 million. Hechinger Co. filed for bankruptcy in 1999, 80 years after its opening in Washington.

The shuttering marked the demise of yet another locally grown retail institution, along with Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckel’s department stores, Peoples Drug Stores, American Security Bank and Perpetual Savings Bank.

During the company’s heyday, Hechinger Sr. was more the public face of the operation, not only because it was his name on the stores but also because of his immersion in national and local Democratic Party politics. In 1967, Hechinger Sr. became Washington’s first appointed City Council chairman. He died in 2004 at 84.

Mr. England, meanwhile, was deeply involved in charitable work and myriad board memberships. He served as a board member or officer of the Jewish Social Service Agency, Goodwill Industries, Providence Hospital, Gallaudet University and the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs, which in 1991 named its new $4 million clubhouse and community center in Northeast Washington for Mr. England.

Mr. England helped students pay their college tuition and also was involved in capital campaigns for larger organizations such as Iona Senior Services, which serves the District’s elderly population.

In 1994, Mr. England was recruited to help raise money to renovate Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest Washington, a decrepit facility nearly a century old. It lacked a cafeteria, a gymnasium, science labs and playing fields. It served mostly immigrant children.

Principal Maria Tukeva, regarded as one of the District’s most charismatic educators, led Mr. England on the tour and, by the end, he said he was persuaded of the need to raze the site and build a new facility. It would, in fact, be cheaper than rehabilitation.

Mr. England played a leading role in raising millions of dollars for the school, renamed the Columbia Heights Educational Campus. He contributed $1 million and helped raise millions of dollars more, and he used his contacts with city and school officials to make the new $63 million school a priority on the city’s list of construction projects. It opened in 2006.

“She won my affection and admiration right away,” Mr. England said of Tukeva after ground was broken in 2003 for a new facility. “She is a woman who gets things done, despite great handicaps.”

A doctor’s son, Richard England was born in Pittsfield, Mass., on Feb. 11, 1920. He was a member of the Harvard University Class of 1942 and graduated that January through an accelerated program for World War II.

He participated in the invasions of North Africa and Normandy and also the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, his family said. Soon after the war, he met his future wife, Lois Hechinger, who was a bridesmaid at the wedding of his older brother Jonathan.

Besides his wife of 67 years, of Washington, survivors include three children, Cathy England of Lexington, Mass., Joan “Nonie” Akman of Chevy Chase and Richard “Rick” England Jr. of Bethesda; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

In recent years, Mr. England founded Chess Challenge, a Washington-based program that teaches children strategic thinking and self-discipline through chess. More than 20 schools and agencies, such as the boys and girls club, now participate in the program.