The length and shadow of one great man
Following is the text of 1974 Scholar Paula Harper-Bethea's address at the Byrnes Foundation 42nd annual luncheon, June 12, 2005.
It is such a wonderful pleasure for me to be here again. I was just sharing with Hal Norton. I spoke first to this group almost 25 years ago in this very location. At that time, I had just finished college and the mike went off and since I was blessed with a big mouth at birth, I just kept on going. We found we did not need the microphone. Hal reminded me of that, that we did not need the microphone.
But, it is wonderful to be back here. I was also here and spoke about ten years ago and my mother came with me to that. Mama was a huge, huge fan of everybody here and believed so much in what the foundation does and insisted oncoming with me. That morning, when we were leaving Hilton Head, she said to me, "Now, what is it that you are going to wear?" I said, "Well, I thought I wear this pantsuit." Well, my mother graduated from Converse College. Until the day she died, she thought I lacked every finer social grace there was; because how could I possibly know right from wrong, graduating from the University and not from Converse. She says to me, "This is a luncheon and you are the speaker and you must wear a dress." So, this morning when I got up and was tempted to wear my favorite pantsuit, I knew Mama would put a hex on me. So, here I am in the little black dress that my grandmother told me would take me anywhere in the world that I needed to go. I am here.
I was driving on I-26 here and was positive that they were giving money away in Columbia today. I have never seen the traffic like it was on I-26. Usually, I run into that on I-95, but today, it was I-26. I was very disappointed when I went to the registration table and there was not money being given away because I was positive of it. But I was positive of one thing more than that: The traffic going towards Charleston was backed up for miles and miles and miles. I could not help but think if I were headed towards Charleston to speak at this luncheon, I probably would not have made it. Now, before I start, you might think that is a good thing. After I finish, you may say we wish you had been going in the other direction. I hope not, but please know what an honor and a privilege it is to be here to see so many wonderful old friends, the people who have underpinned me, believed in me, continued to reach out to me in such special ways. I cannot tell you what that has meant to my life and there are very few things which have ever meant more to me than being able to join this foundation board. I look forward to it.
One other thing has happened this year, I had a significant birthday. I t begins with a five. With that came the necessity of these little glasses. I thought I had it mastered. I went to the eye doctor and got one contact. They call it monolithic correction and it was fabulous. The, I got a severe case of dry eye. I had to quit wearing the contact, so you all are going to have to look at these. This is really something; old age is not for sissies. Anyway, it is my pleasure to be here and share this very special day with each of you.
One of my favorite writers over the years has been the great New England poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had the kind of wisdom that transcended geography in the ages. He said something I believe we can all appreciate today. "An institution," he wrote, "is the length and shadow of one great man.” Today, we gather as we have for years, 42 years, under the length and shadow of one great man, James Francis Byrnes. His greatness left for all of us an institution which has given hope, inspiration, and courage to generations of South Carolinians. We are the recipients and the beneficiaries of that great institution and we today celebrate that great bequest. On a day such as this, however, it seems that we should reach beyond a few lofty words and thoughts. After all, the eextraordinary life of the man in whose name we gather deserves more than just a few pages in a history book. It speaks to us as a living message of values which should be heard and understood clearly today. This was a life not simply spent in public service; it was a life spent in risk, danger and crisis. It was a life spent dealing with the realities of a world at war with itself on two occasions and a nation in danger of splitting itself apart.
James F. Byrnes stepped squarely into those desperate times and not only served with distinction, he served with great courage and fortitude. In times of war, he worked for victory and in times of peace, he worked for unity. Those thoughts give us a basis on which to look at ourselves and ask ourselves some important questions. Because of the gift he made to each of us here today, whether directly or indirectly, our lives will forever bear an association with the man and his bride, whom we know as Mom and Pop Byrnes. They were not blessed with children of their own, so they made us their sons and their daughters. That makes us not just offspring or beneficiaries, that also makes us stewards of the life, tradition and heritage he created during the days that he was here on earth.
"For of those to whom much is given, much is required." Those are the words of President John F. Kennedy quoting and paraphrasing the book of Luke. President Kennedy used that thought to describe how he felt we should be measured as human beings. He said there were four criteria: Courage, judgment, integrity and dedication. We count ourselves among those to whom much is given. The James F. Byrnes scholars have been blessed with the gift of an education and from that gift, we have built good lives for and with ourselves and our families. We are all blessed in other extraordinary ways as well.
Now and every day comes the time for us to ask a question of ourselves: "What is required in return for the gifts we have received?" "What do we expect of ourselves in this highest of transactions?" President Kennedy would suggest that we conduct our lives with courage, with judgment, with integrity and with dedication. These are the very values by which Governor Byrnes could measure his own life. Should we really measure ours by anything less? Of course not.
In our lifetimes, we may not be asked to confront the enormity of the challenges which Governor Byrnes encountered during his career of service, but we can learn every day from his example. We can shape our lives in ways that reflect the standards of excellence that he always set for himself. Now, how does that translate for each of us in today's world? It begins, I believe, with the word "motivation." How did we each arrive at this place in our lives? What caused us to believe that we could make a contribution? Each of us in this room has a separate and unique story and at least part of it is grounded in adversity and sadness.
Mine goes back to that New Year's Day in 1973 when I hugged my Daddy good morning and he died in my arms of a massive coronary. I was a small town girl from Estill, South Carolina who had just lost the greatest hero in my life. It was, without doubt, the moment I left childhood and became an adult. It was at once the moment when my fate took on new meaning for me. Shortly after my Daddy's death, new heroes entered my life, Maude and Jimmy Byrnes. Their great legacy gave me a college education and a further reason to believe in what could be or better yet, believe in what I could be. I lost my only sister fifteen years ago and with her in my arms, I also said goodbye and paused again in my life and felt a huge loss and a twinge of self pity, but not for long. She had taught me so much about life in the ten months she battled cancer and I knew beyond a doubt, that her example had further equipped me to make a difference, even if just a small difference. Many of our saddest moments teach us our greatest lessons and provide for us our truest blessings. We all face life's challenges in different ways, I suppose. We can let adversity overwhelm us or we can decide to fight the good fight, to persevere, armed all the while with the characteristics of Mom and Pop Byrnes.
All of us in this room decided on the latter course. But I doubt that any of us would have won that fight with such grace and such determination without the legacy of the Byrnes Foundation and without a lot of other giants on whose shoulders we have all traveled.
For Paula Harper Bethea, the journey has been an exceptional one. Nothing has humbled and honored me more than being appointed to the board of the Byrnes Foundation this year. Life has truly come full circle for this small town girl who thought the world ended when her Daddy died. He is still in my heart just like my sister and my Mama. I constantly hear them saying to keep driving and to keep pushing to give back to all those who have made my stay here on earth such a joyous one.
Each of you gathered here today hears those same voices and feels those same mysterious warmths. The Byrnes Foundation, the great legacy of Jimmy and Maude Byrnes, has reached out and made it possible for each of us to overcome heartbreak and adversity. That has been the special fuel and energy which has pushed us to expect just a little more of ourselves. Now, it is our turn to be on the giving end of that transaction. Let us give to those who stand where we did years ago. Let us make sure that at least for those of us capable, we ensure the continued existence and success of The Byrnes Foundation by gifts of our time, our talent and yes, our resources.
Let us also relearn the lessons of Governor Byrnes life itself. Let us remember the challenge President Kennedy laid down for all of those to whom much is given. Yes, we are each the recipients of great gifts of human kindness and human inspiration. Yes, much is expected of us: Courage, judgment, integrity and dedication. Looking around this room today, I do not believe that these values are strangers to any of us. I am sure, in fact, that I am preaching to the choir. I run that risk, however, with the understanding that the people gathered in this room today are the most valuable resource and precious gift that The Byrnes Foundation possesses. Obviously, I am talking about leadership. I am talking about the people who are willing to step forward and take a responsible role in public and civic affairs and people who are willing to sustain, for generations of young people, the gift too valuable to price, the gift so many of us received, the gift which is the great equalizer among people, the gift which has enabled us to believe in ourselves and in others, the gift which can never be taken away from us, the gift, which I hope, makes us all lifelong learners, the gift of a college education.
We have been given the mind to build for ourselves a wealth of personal accomplishments and successes. We have been given the heart to reach out and share ourselves with others in the building of families and neighborhoods and communities. We have been given a soul, by which we define our inner values and spiritual direction.
Today, I am asking each of us to recommit ourselves to underpin and, yes indeed, grow our foundation and our scholars' organization so that future generations will know the blessings that we know so very well. Stepping forward, making a difference. It is nothing more than James F. Byrnes would have expected of you and me. It is nothing less that we should each expect.