Leading a Life of Service

Published on December 11, 2023

Rev. Robert Blythe, ’71

By Jerry Wallace

By the time he served as president of his senior class at EKU, it was obvious that a bright future awaited the 1971 graduate. But, just four years earlier, he had arrived on the Richmond campus “somewhat shy,” as he continued to live at his parents’ nearby home. That reticence quickly faded as the mathematics major “learned who I was” and met “new people from places I did not know.” 

As he began his career teaching mathematics at the high school and middle school levels, initially in Gary, Indiana, little could Rev. Blythe foresee then what direction his life would one day take. Then, in 1981, an opportunity arose to succeed his pastor, mentor and “greatest inspiration,” Rev. A. G. Goodloe, at his home church, First Baptist, at 302 Francis St. in Richmond. 

At the time, he had no formal theological training, but he went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in divinity. Rev. Blythe continues serving the church as pastor, having led the congregation through the construction of a new facility and retiring the church’s 30-year debt in just 13 years. More importantly, “I hope that my legacy will be that I was faithful to my calling and that people’s lives were made better because of the work that I did in the name of the Lord.”

Meanwhile, he continued to teach in local public schools and in 1993 began an 18-year tenure at his alma mater, where he sought to help EKU students “learn how to learn.” Many of his proteges had struggled with mathematics. 

“I would tell them that regardless of their past experiences, this was a second chance. Some went on to become math teachers themselves or to accept positions that required the use of what we had learned in our classes.”

In 2002, two years after failing in his first bid for public office, Rev. Blythe made good on his own second chance, winning the first of eight consecutive two-year terms on the Richmond City Commission. Then, in 2018, he became the first African American ever to be elected Richmond mayor. He was re-elected in 2022.

“I have tried to be a commissioner and mayor for the people,” he said. “I would like to be remembered as one who rallied people from different backgrounds for good causes. I am most proud that I have seen interest sparked in many young people of all ethnicities who feel they would like to do what I do. I am proud, too, of the work we have been able to do to give our senior citizens the opportunities for activity and longer life.” 

As a city official, Rev. Blythe has engaged many of his fellow faith leaders in the work of the city, while remaining sensitive to diverse backgrounds. “What is common,” he said, “is that people want to be heard and respected. They need to be reassured that their differences in thinking do not remove them from the conversation.”

As educator, pastor and mayor, Rev. Blythe feels the “call on my life to give service to those around. I feel fulfilled when I am giving. And I like to see the results, the benefits to others, when they receive what I give.”

His fellow Colonels, his congregation and his community are all deeply grateful that the once-shy youngster from Richmond answered that call.