Norfolk philanthropist dies at age 77

Josh Darden (Photo by Glen McClure, courtesy of the Hampton Roads Community Foundation)
Josh Darden (Photo by Glen McClure, courtesy of the Hampton Roads Community Foundation)

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – After living a remarkable life of service to Virginia, and particularly Hampton Roads, Joshua P. Darden passed away Thursday at the age of 77.

Many people say it’s hard to measure all he did for others during his life. Darden believed in the fundamental importance of philanthropy to improve a community.

“I have an interest in philanthropy, which I can do given my relationship in the community, that can be helpful,” Darden said in a video made in 2011 when he received the Frank Batten Community Philanthropist Award.

Photos: Remembering Josh Darden

Darden served with the Hampton Roads Community Foundation for 27 years. It’s President and CEO Debbie DiCroce said Darden was what we all inspire to be.

“He had a sense of humanity, his own humanity, his service, not only to the region, but this Commonwealth,” DiCroce said. “His friends are so many.”

Darden grew up in Norfolk, graduated from the University of Virginia — where he was active in student government – and lived at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront later in life. His father served as Norfolk’s mayor and his grandfather as a Governor of Virginia.

He returned to Norfolk after leaving the Army in 1959 to work at his family’s car dealership. There, he eventually took over and expanded the business into Colonial Auto Group, which headed ten dealerships.

Darden trained and mentored many, including at least 20 employees, who have gone on to be successful car dealers themselves. They established a scholarship in his name, but it was the ground rules Darden laid out for the funds that are telling.

“The recipients must be graduates of public high schools in South Hampton Roads who are interested in going to public colleges or universities in Virginia,” said DiCroce.

Darden’s philanthropic work put special emphasis on education. He spent ten years on the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, including three as rector, and spearheaded a campaign that raised $1.4 billion for the school.

He co-founded ACCESS College Foundation, which, over 25 years, has raised $375 million to help more than 40,000 disadvantaged students from 29 local public high schools go to college.

“Josh said [ACCESS] was one of the best things he ever did,” said Bonnie Sutton, President and CEO of ACCESS College Foundation. “ … Josh was very important to Access and Access was very important to Josh.”

But his professional career and educational philanthropic work did not overshadow his political and influence. Darden also created the CIVIC Leadership Institute to prepare leaders for Hampton Roads.

“He called me one day, and said, ‘I want you to come to my office’,” said Cathy Lewis.

Then he told her she was taking over the CIVIC Leadership Institute. Lewis admits she had no idea what she was doing.

“But I came to find out it didn’t matter,” she said. “He saw something, and he gave you a lot of support.”

Darden also served on the Norfolk Foundation for 20 years, the last ten as chairman, and was instrumental in founding the Business Consortium for Arts Support, Smart Beginnings South Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Community Foundation. He raised millions while at the Hampton Roads Community Foundation.

“We put almost $15 million on the streets relative to grants that cover every aspect of human service, including arts, education, culture,” said DiCroce.

Darden once said, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”

That was Josh Darden, who said in his tribute video, “If you are going to be an effective fundraiser then you have to do whatever is a meaningful gift on your part before you ask someone to do the same thing.”

WAVY.com wanted to do a report about Darden in 2011when he received the Batten Award, but he politely declined. Darden didn’t care about being the toast of the town. He only cared about making the town better.

Services for Darden are pending.

Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim released the following statement on the passing of Joshua P. Darden:

“With the passing of Josh Darden the city has lost a great friend and patron.  His love for Norfolk, together with his deep belief in a responsibility to give back to the community, were expressed through quiet  leadership and support of initiatives that have benefited our citizens – particularly our young people – greatly over the years.  Mr. Darden also loved the University of Virginia and the Commonwealth, and his contributions to them over the years have been numerous and important.

Mr. Darden’s death leaves a void that will be difficult, if not impossible, to fill.  We will all miss him greatly, and the City’s thoughts and prayers are with the Darden family in this time of loss.”

Lieutenant Governor Northam said the following on the passing of Joshua P. Darden:

Pam and I were very saddened to hear of the death of Joshua P. Darden Jr. Mr. Darden was a true statesman and mentor to so many across the Commonwealth, and his impact in my home region of Hampton Roads was especially profound.

Mr. Darden truly led by example in supporting a wide range of causes including helping thousands of lower income students to attend college through the Access College Foundation. He was a pillar of the Norfolk community and, while he cannot be replaced, I know that his legacy will encourage all of us to do more for the community that we love.

Pam and I send our thoughts and prayers to the Darden family.

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