Richard Todd Edwards Embraces Family Legacy in Supporting Community
BY CLYDE HUGHES | AC JosepH Media
BRIDGETON — Richard Todd Edwards has seen the highs and lows of life, the excitement of success and the disappointment of defeat, while seeing people struggle and then overcome great obstacles.
Edwards, one of the leading African American political strategists and move makers in South Jersey, if not all of the state, proudly lauds one brother who is CEO of CompleteCare Health Network and worries deeply about another brother who is struggling with addiction.
The entrepreneur touts the success of the family business funeral home started by his father, “Big Jim” Edwards but is also concerned about the struggling shops and storefronts in his own community. He witnesses the live-challenging circumstances of local young people and celebrates efforts like the nonprofit Life Worth Living reclaiming one youth at a time from the streets.
“My dad was always about building people up around them, giving people opportunities and uplifting everybody,” said Edwards of his father, a former pro football player and college graduate who died in 2016. “That’s why I’m so close to John Fuqua and Life Worth Living. I just know that would have been something that dad would have been involved in, saving kids. That just rubbed off on me.”
While his name is on the lips of almost anyone in South Jersey who is asked about the leading Black political insiders in the region, he often prefers to work behind the scenes. A keen observer can spot his 6-foot-5 frame standing out behind a group photo taken by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s office earlier this month when Life Worth Living, the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office and Inspira Health was awarded a $1 million federal grant.
READ: Life Worth Living, Prosecutor’s Office, Inspira Share in $1M Grant
But Edwards values relationship building over being in front of a crowd and taking others under his wings. He said Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly did that for him in his 20s, helping Edwards win a seat on Bridgeton’s school board some 20 years ago.
“That’s how I got involved in politics,” said Edwards, who is now the political action committee chair of the New Jersey State NAACP Conference, where he meets, and nudges, elected officials around the state on a regular basis. “He told me he was coming off the school board to run for city council and wanted me to take his place. I didn’t know anything about politics then.”
But under the tutelage of his father, Edwards had already become a mainstay in his family business early on, meeting with families of those the Edwards and Son Funeral Home cared for.
“As a funeral director, there are a lot of people who come across your desk that you build a relationship with because you’re in possession of one of their most prized possessions,” Edwards said. “That loved one is either their father, their mother or their child. My establishment takes that job very seriously.
“So, over the years, after meeting hundreds of families and building those relationships, I guess in other people’s eyes who are more seasoned, they saw that I may be electable.”
Edwards said with a laugh that when he lost a city council election after serving on the school board for several years, it “humbled the s*** out of me.”
“I thought I was on top of the world being young, up-and-coming, and thought everybody was embracing me,” Edwards said. “Then I lost the election. But I didn’t get discouraged and I stayed involved. There was an opening for the [local] Democratic city chairmanship that opened up and I got that position.”
His brother, J. Curtis Edwards, now sits on Bridgeton City Council and is the longtime president and CEO of CompleteCare, one of the largest networks of community health centers in New Jersey.
Their father Jim Edwards grew up in the small central Texas town of Palestine. He played football for the Dallas Texans, a forerunner of the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Dallas Cowboys. He met his wife Evangeline Edwards in Atlantic City and moved to Millville after marrying.
He used his degree in special education to help what his son said was thousands of local troubled youth in group homes. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to owning a barbecue restaurant in Bridgeton and apartment units in Chester, Pa. before getting into the funeral home business. His mother would go on to become a registered nurse.
“My dad was a giant in the community,” Edwards said. “My dad was instrumental in raising thousands of kids through our group homes and detention centers. My whole life we had kids living in my house because my dad was teaching them basic life skills and how to survive.
“There are thousands of kids who call me their brother and I acknowledge and accept that because they were raised by my parents like we were.”
One of Edward’s big causes now is making sure cannabis companies adhere to the social equity component in connection with some of his work with the NAACP under state President Richard Smith.
“I joined under the leadership of Richard Smith when cannabis and bail bond reform was getting popular,” Edward said. “Now, I’m working my way to Trenton with the NAACP. We were fighting for bail bond reform and building relationships in the statehouse, with assembly people and senators. I’m going to those positions to build true lasting relationships.”
A year ago when the NAACP was planning to bring its national convention to Atlantic City, Smith called Edwards indispensable.
“I can’t even put words to say how valuable he is,” Smith told Front Runner New Jersey last April about Edwards’ contributions to the NAACP. “Sometimes you got to have folks close to you. I never go anywhere by myself and 90% of the time, he’s with me.
“He’s my right-hand man. I can call him at any time of the day. He embraces the vision. He does the work without all of the nonsense and the craziness.”
“You can’t share your dream with everybody because sometimes the devil will put people in place. Those people will listen to your dream and try to derail it. He is a true supporter and a good brother. I’m just blessed to have him.”
Edwards said he is prayerful for a younger brother who is struggling with addiction and his thoughts are never far away from him. He lost another brother James D. Edwards Jr., in a motorcycle accident in 1986. He said he knows from a personal standpoint the challenges of mental health issues, the urgent resources communities of color need to address them and why the work being done by organizations like Life Worth Living are so valuable.
“I don’t care about color, if you are black, white, brown or whatever you are,” Edwards said. “We should just love on folks. I’m going to help whomever I can.”
Edwards has a family of his own now with his wife Clarisse and two teenage children.
As Edwards prepares for a 50th birthday party in April and celebrating his father’s legacy with the second annual Life Worth Living James “Big Jim” Edwards Auto and Motorcycle Show on the Bridgeton riverfront, he wants to leave a better community behind.
The Rest of the Story
Here are some of the other subjects Edwards touched on in his interview with Front Runner New Jersey.com.
FRNJ: When did you become interested in the funeral home business?
Richard Todd Edwards: My family bought our funeral home during my senior year of high school. Then my freshman year of college, my dad bought our second funeral home. I came home and had to change my major after saying to myself this looks like a pretty lucrative possible family business. I went into mortuary science and got my mortuary license and was able to practice, run and be part of the family business.
FRNJ: Now, you have a degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University sometime later. When did that happen?
Richard Todd Edwards: I felt incomplete. There were people who had degrees and although I had a mortuary license as a funeral director, I felt like I needed my bachelor’s degree. I was raised in a house where everyone was going to college. That’s what our parents expected. Our local community college had a Fairleigh Dickinson program where you could finish your four-year degree there. That’s what I did.
FRNJ: Tell us about playing basketball in community college?
Richard Todd Edwards: When I was in high school, I played for Woodstown High School and Salem Community College was starting its own basketball program. I was offered a scholarship but didn’t take it. I went away to Howard University thinking I was going to be a psychology major. When my dad bought our second funeral home right near the college. I saw the bigger picture and reached out to see if that scholarship was still on the table and it was. That’s how I ended up on a paid full basketball scholarship there.
FRNJ: One of your friends Wade Loatman calls you the Black Godfather of New Jersey. Where did that come from?
(Editor’s Note: Clarence Avant is a legendary music executive, entrepreneur, and film producer, who earned the nickname The Black Godfather while managing the career of greats like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Eddie Hubbard, and Rock and Roll pioneer Thom Wilson.)
Richard Todd Edwards: Netflix has this documentary on the life of Clarence Avant, who was called the Black Godfather. He was the real Black Godfather. I think I’ve watched that documentary about 50 times. I mimic my ways around Clarence. A lot of my ways, on a smaller scale, come from him, no doubt. I try to help my people, regardless, of when they need help. I’m not worried about people saying the White man is keeping them down. I want to talk about seeing how we can lift each other up and build up our own kings and queens.
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