Remembering J. Keith Crisco, Exemplary Servant Leader and Friend to Pfeiffer
“He was truly a remarkable man.”
“The world needs more Keith Criscos.”
“He was a gentleman’s ‘gentle man.’”
When Keith Crisco ’64 died suddenly on May 12, the Pfeiffer family lost a dear friend, unabashed supporter and constant champion. Sentiments, similar to those above, have poured in from friends and former classmates, confirming the feelings of Pfeiffer’s trustees, faculty and staff.
Since his arrival at the Misenheimer campus in 1960, the first in his family to enroll in college, Crisco continued to enrich not only Pfeiffer but his home community of Asheboro in Randolph County through leading by example and enthusiastically sharing everything he encountered as a business leader and public servant with the people and places he loved.
“More than once, Pfeiffer students and audiences benefitted from prominent commencement speakers because of Keith’s personal recommendation and connections,” said Mike Miller, Pfeiffer’s president and Crisco’s longtime Asheboro friend. “The same goes for speakers for the Uwharrie Point Book Club and Asheboro Friends of the Library. Keith was always eager to bring home those he’d met elsewhere if he knew others would enjoy them.”
After graduating as class president from Pfeiffer College in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics—an opportunity encouraged by an aunt who recognized Crisco’s potential and impressed upon him that education was the key to a life different from his Aquadale, N.C., farm roots—Keith earned an MBA from Harvard University in 1968. Before long, he headed to Washington, D.C. for a stint as a White House Fellow during the Nixon administration.
“While a Harvard MBA is one of the most difficult academic programs to be accepted to and complete, Keith was more proud of and grateful for his undergraduate experience at Pfeiffer because that’s where he got his start,” said Warren Knapp ’66, who met Crisco on his first day as a Pfeiffer undergrad. Later they became business partners and neighbors whose homes still stand across the street from one another. “His office chair bore the Pfeiffer logo—not Harvard’s. Above his desk hung a black and white snapshot of Keith as a young farm boy with his dog, reminding him always where he came from.”
In 1986, Crisco and Knapp, along with partners Herb Wright and Carl Odham, founded Asheboro Elastics (now known as AEC Narrow Fabrics), a company that manufactures elastic bands for fitted sheets and undergarments. Their venture was informed by Crisco’s experience with Burlington Industries and as president of Stedman Elastics.
With an initial Small Business Administration loan granted by Mike Miller when he was with First National Bank and Trust (now CommunityOne Bank) in Asheboro, Asheboro Elastics was up and running.
“They were a real dream team,” said Miller of Crisco and his partners. “Between Keith’s industry experience and leadership, Warren’s salesmanship, Herb’s operations expertise and Carl’s artistic creativity, they took off. Of course, there were the usual start-up challenges, which they strategized about and persevered through, but they made it.”
Today AEC Narrow Elastics, which eventually pioneered the printing of logos and company names on elastic bands, employs 200 people. “After 25 years as business partners,” Crisco told Knapp in 2011, “we’ve lasted longer than most marriages.”
Crisco’s civic life, which Miller describes as “on the move,” eventually included elected positions on the Asheboro City Schools Board of Education and Asheboro City Council as well as involvement on a number of boards, including as a Pfeiffer trustee, where he’s helped lead his alma mater for 30 years. For his record of service, he received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest distinction for community involvement.
Regionally, Crisco is best known as North Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce, a position he held from 2008-2013 during the state’s and nation’s most challenging economic period since the Great Depression.
“He accepted that responsibility without hesitation because he loved this state and wanted to help when times were hard,” said former Governor Bev Perdue, who appointed him. “His efforts helped in attracting 120,000 jobs as he worked across our state in both rural and urban areas and around the world to bring new jobs, expand existing jobs and stabilize our economy.”
Business success and high-profile public service aside, Crisco’s pride and joy always has been his family. He met his wife Jane Sidbury Crisco ’63 at Pfeiffer; they were married in 1964.
“Even though Keith was respected as a campus leader, I knew him best as Jane Sidbury’s boyfriend,” quipped former classmate Ray Hopper ’63.
Over 49 years together, Keith and Jane raised three children, all Pfeiffer graduates: John ’89, married to Bramley, of Greensboro; Jeffrey ’91, who lives with his wife, Donna, in Asheboro; and Julia Del Grande ’94, married to Gifford, a 1996 Pfeiffer graduate, who resides in Asheboro. Combined they have extended the Crisco family to include Katie, Truett, Henry, Kenyon, Grant, Holly, Hayden and Andrew.
“A particular point of pride for Keith is that his sons and son-in-law are involved and thriving in the family business,” said Knapp.
A priority for the Criscos is their membership at First United Methodist Church, Asheboro, where Keith taught Sunday school and served as a lay leader. Their connection to church and community is brought forth by Rev. Lori Beth Huffman, an Asheboro native who grew up with the Crisco’s children and attended First UMC.
“Keith employed me at the elastics mill when I badly needed money to help pay for a Scandinavian Caravan trip in college,” said Lori, who serves as the District Superintendent of the Appalachian District of the Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC. “Inspecting elastic taught me to respect those who work in mills…He will be greatly missed.”
Having made an indelible impression on the entire Pfeiffer community—as trustee and board chair and as recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Award, consistent sponsor of Pfeiffer’s annual golf outing and honorary co-chair—alongside Jane—for the annual Met My Mate celebration at Homecoming 2013, among many other Pfeiffer activities, Keith Crisco’s absence will certainly be felt.
“He never said ‘no’ to anything Pfeiffer related,” said Tom Grady ’63, a fellow trustee. “Everything about him was Pfeiffer oriented.”
In fact, Crisco had recently been giving consideration to chairing Pfeiffer’s upcoming capital campaign, a decision that was to come after the completion of the current political season and the race for which Crisco was a candidate at the time of his death for U.S. House District 2.
“Leading Pfeiffer into the future was a natural fit for Keith’s talents and longstanding commitment to Pfeiffer,” said Thad Henry, special assistant to the president and vice president for advancement. “Our success as an institution is in no small part due to enduring support from Keith and Jane Crisco. Keith’s legacy will undoubtedly serve as a beacon as we move forward to help students of today and tomorrow build meaningful and successful lives through lifelong learning, service and work.”
Click here to see the Charlotte Chamber's tribute to Keith.