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Virtuoso founder Jesse Upchurch dies at 93

Jesse L. Upchurch, an entrepreneur and visionary community leader who helped Charles Tandy save the company that was to become Tandy Corp. and later co-founded the highly successful Fort Worth-based travel service Virtuoso, died Feb. 26 at his home. He was 93.

A private service was scheduled for March 5, the family said, and celebrations of his life will take place in various communities in the months ahead.

Mr. Upchurch’s career spanned more than 54 years and multiple occupations.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Upchurch played a key role in assisting Charles Tandy, with the critical financial support of Gwendolyn Tandy and the Johnston and Upchurch families, win a difficult proxy battle for control of Tandy Leather.

Tandy had lost control of the leather company through its merger with American Hide & Leather. After the successful proxy campaign, the company changed its name to Tandy Corp. on the New York Stock Exchange, the family said.

Mr. Upchurch served on many Tandy Corp. spinoff boards including Pier 1, Color Tile and the Bombay Company. He also served as chairman of the executive committee of the Tandy board after Mr. Tandy’s death.

Len Roberts, who became president of the Radio Shack division of Tandy Corp. in 1993 and was chief operating officer of Tandy from 1999 until his retirement in 2004, remembers Mr. Upchurch’s upbeat attitude.

“Jesse was unique in terms of always seeing the glass as half-full,” Roberts said, “He was an optimist. No matter what the issue was, he always saw the opportunity.”

On the few occasions that Mr. Upchurch was critical of some issue or some plan, Roberts said, that criticism was delivered with a “wonderful smile. It was very disarming.”

“I’d say best in class in terms of being a gentleman,” Roberts said.

It was before Roberts’ time, of course, but Mr. Upchurch and Tandy were close from the start, and Roberts said he can visualize a conversation involving them.

“When Charles probably talked about his rapid expansion, how he was going to expand Radio Shack from six stores to a thousand stores, I can just see the members of the board talking about how that can’t happen,” Roberts said. “I guarantee you that Jesse was the one who said, ‘It can happen, and it will happen, and I support you fully, Charles. What do you need? Let’s get this job done.’ “

Mr. Upchurch was born in Gowdeysville, South Carolina, and raised primarily by his maternal grandparents due to the loss of both parents at a very young age. He left the Carolinas as age 17 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving as ship’s engineer and rising to the rank of lieutenant.

After the war, he joined the United States Line as chief electrical engineer on the USS Washington, the family said. It was on a transatlantic crossing that he met his future wife, Constance Johnston, the family said in a prepared obituary.

In 1986, Mr. Upchurch and his son Matthew co-founded Allied-Percival International with the merger of Allied Travel Inc. and Percival Tours Inc.

The merger led to what is now Virtuoso, the world’s leading luxury and experiential travel network – comprising more than 17,500 Travel Advisors associated with more than 1,000 agency member locations in 45 plus countries and generating nearly $27 billion in sales, the family said.

Roberts pointed out that when Mr. Upchurch moved into the travel industry, he brought with him that same upbeat, can-do attitude he had shown earlier.

“He started a whole new model of travel,” Roberts said. “Before Jesse, you relied on your travel agent to know everything about your destination. The whole new model is that your travel agent is expected to partner with another Virtuoso agent who’s the expert, who lives in that local environment. The whole model changed.”

Mr. Upchurch served as a director on the Industry Advisory Board to the U.S. Congressional Travel & Tourism Caucus and was a founding member of the Travel and Tourism Government Affairs Policy Council during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. He was a co-founder of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, serving as its chairman, CEO and president. He also served as chairman of the African Travel Association.

He was a founding member of World Wildlife Fund’s 1001 Club.

To protect the endangered Rothschild giraffe, he donated land to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (of which he was chairman) for an area that now serves as the grounds of the famed Giraffe Manor in Nairobi.

Among his many interests, Mr. Upchurch loved polo. He was a lifelong champion of the game, especially interscholastic and intercollegiate, and was a key backer of the National Polo League. In 2009 he was inducted into the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame and received the Philip Iglehart Award recognizing “exceptional lifetime contributions to the sport of polo either on a regional or national level.” 

A few years ago, Mr. Upchurch penned his autobiography One Thing Just Led to Another. He was an inspiration to countless people around the world. Possessed of insatiable curiosity and a wonderful sense of humor, he noted in the book, “I’ve had a good life. I’ve had good opportunities. One thing just led to another. And look at what this life turned out to be.”

He was preceded in death by his wife, Connie, and granddaughter, Gwendolyn. Survivors include four children: Kenneth J. Upchurch, (wife Vicki); Gwendolyn Perrone (husband John); Jesse “Jay” L. Upchurch (wife Jan); and Matthew D. Upchurch (wife Jessica); and grandchildren Evan Upchurch, Matthew M. Upchurch, Jordan Upchurch, Clay Upchurch, and Benjamin Upchurch.

The family is establishing the Jesse L. Upchurch Memorial Fund. Those wishing to honor his memory may email pledges to jwest@virtuoso.com.

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