Signs of the Times

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Photography by KATIE MCGEE

WHAT DEFINES A SAVANNAHIAN? Is it simply a matter of birth? Or is it also someone who chooses Savannah for more than half of his 88 years — not only chooses it, but pours his heart and soul into doing all that he can for this city that he loves?

Dick Estus may be Binghamton, N.Y.-born, but he considers himself a Savannahian. “I’ve been here more than I’ve been anywhere,” he says, though he arrived by a circuitous route.

Estus made his career in out-of-home advertising (think advertising that you see outside, like billboards, wallscapes and posters), going to work for General Outdoor Advertising upon graduation from Bucknell University. His job moved him to Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Penn., Utica, N.Y., and Richmond, Va., which is where he met his wife, Sue. When Turner Outdoor Advertising came to the Richmond area, Estus found himself working for Ted Turner’s father, and eventually a then-24-year-old Ted. He spent the next 15 years in Atlanta working for Turner before deciding he wanted his own company.  

Estus received a job offer in Savannah in 1971 and ended up buying the company. This July 1, after 63 years in the business and having sold and re-started his company, Estus Outdoor, three times, he truly retired at age 87.

We most likely all saw Estus’s billboards in and around Savannah, but that’s just the beginning of what he’s contributed to our city. On the ride home from a trip to Williamsburg, Va., decades ago, Estus mused about how Colonial Williamsburg is all a re-creation. “Savannah is the real thing,” he recalls telling Sue. “They need to take advantage of it!”

Estus spent much of his first year here helping Savannah to do just that. At the time, Florida-bound traffic bypassed Savannah, and the routes that did enter the city didn’t offer much to entice visitors. Estus began to look for a space for a visitors’ center, where they could show a movie like one he saw in Williamsburg. “We needed a big building, and we needed a parking lot.”

Estus, a former SEDA chairman, with Brynn Grant, the former COO of SEDA and current president and CEO of United Way of the Coastal Empire // photography courtesy of SAVANNAH AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

The old railroad station on MLK Jr. Boulevard fit the bill. “It was right off of Louisville Road, so all [visitors] had to do was turn, and they were right there at the visitors’ center.” He had to act fast before the city made it into a tag office, but he managed to secure the building. Then he headed to Atlanta to meet with Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter. The soon-to-be president gave Estus $10,000 to make a film that would show visitors all the reasons to spend a few days in Savannah. At the time, Savannah had one tour bus and one hotel, the DeSoto Hilton. Estus became the first chairman of the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau, and most of his board members were customers of the billboard business — people who owned restaurants, motels and the like. “That was the beginning of it all,” he says. “It worked out really well!”

A bit of an understatement, really: according to the Savannah Area Chamber, more than 14.8 million visitors came to Savannah in 2019, spending $3.1 billion during their collective stay that same year. 

Estus was also the chairman of SEDA (Savannah Economic Development Authority). Along with its president, Dick Knowlton, he acquired the large swath of land from Union Camp (the pulp and paper company) that now houses all the distribution centers near the airport. “Home Depot was the first one we brought in, and since then, the port and everything have just exploded.” 

“Home Depot was the first one we brought in, and since then, the port
and everything have just exploded.”

Estus is not only a smart businessman, but a man of conscience. He was founding chairman of the First City Club on Johnson Square. At the time, some of Savannah’s social clubs wouldn’t permit Black or Jewish members, and women were made to eat in a back room. Estus wanted to found a club that would be open to everyone, and he did. After that, the other clubs changed their ways and became inclusive as well.

Among his many accolades, in 2016, Estus was the recipient of the Savannah Area Chamber’s prestigious Oglethorpe Leadership Award for all his contributions to Savannah. In the Chamber’s 215-year history, fewer than 40 people have received this honor.

For someone so engrossed in local business for so many decades, it’s unsurprising that retirement has been a bit of an adjustment. “I think I might do a little work for one of the people I sold to,” he muses. “You know, less than part-time, but I like to be busy.” But Estus’ new chapter has its perks, including a new labradoodle puppy named Wakefield and more time to tend to the garden. 

As for staying busy? Sue Estus is on it. “My wife has me doing more than I ever did,” he says, laughing.