The Honorable Governor Byrnes Nurtured Honorable Citizens
by Aïda Rogers
"Reprinted with permission © 1998 Sandlapper Society."
Photo by Richard Durlach: Jean Elton, former Executive Secretary of the James F. Byrnes Foundation, reviews scholarship applications.
It's repeated over and over: The Byrnes scholarship is a gift. Jimmy Byrnes, like many parents, wanted to send his children to college. The only thing he expected in return was a responsible citizen who wouldn't bring shame on the Byrnes name. "You don't have to be a doctor or engineer or split atoms," notes Carol Ann Green of Batesburg-Leesville, a 1950 scholar and board member. "You can just be a good neighbor. That's what he meant by that."
They've done very well. At last count, there were 18 lawyers, 20-plus doctors, 14 ministers, 40-some engineers and more than 100 teachers. Two of the better-known scholars are Paula Harper Bethea, an Estill native and national director of the United Way, and writer/singer Ron Daise, creator and star of "Gullah Gullah Island," a children's TV show. Johann Mishoe McCrackin of Myrtle Beach was named South Carolina Mother of the Year and penned the song "South Carolina, Strong and Great."
After Byrnes established the foundation in 1948, he was able to send 80 high school seniors to college in 1949. The scholarship was for $500 a year, enough for half the tuition of a state-supported school. Byrnes believed a worthy student could find a way to pay the rest.
Today, a Byrnes scholarship of $3,250 doesn't cover half the costs of a state-supported school; in fact, in 1991 it covered only 26 percent. The board of directors - all former scholars - are trying to raise money to once again cover half. Its "Living Memorial" campaign, named after Byrnes' desire not to be remembered in brick and stone, has garnered more than $200,000 from alumni scholars. Soon, corporations will be asked to contribute to the cause. Its goal: $5 million by 2004, which would keep 100 students in college at a time. As it is now, about 18 high school seniors receive a Byrnes scholarship each year. Currently, an average of 70 Byrnes scholars are in college, mostly in South Carolina.
"Each of these kids that come through, we feel towards them like Gov. Byrnes felt toward us: 'Here is a young boy or young girl whom we want to do everything we can to help,'" says Dr. Bill Rowe, board treasurer. "And it's very painful for us not to be able to give scholarships to all of them."
About 200 students apply for the scholarship each year, with 40-some making it to the interview, which is conducted by the board. Winners are chosen based on scholarship, need, work experience, leadership and motivation. Recipients almost always are grateful. "These people make you want to be a better person," says Firouzei Flordelis, a College of Charleston sophomore. "They make you aware of your actions. You always try to be on your best."
Alumni still recall the jubilation of winning the scholarship. "I got it, I got it, I got it!" shouted Alanna Turner Bair of Blackville, jumping up and down at the mailbox that summer day in 1969. Parents celebrated, too. "Dal getting the scholarship meant everything to us," remembers Grace Poston, 79, whose husband died when her son was 14. "It was an answer to our prayer."
For information about the James F. Byrnes Foundation or to make a donation, contact Kenya D. White, Executive Secretary, P.O. Box 6781, Columbia, SC 29260-6781; 803-254-9825, fax 803-254-9354, or e-mail. For information about James F. Byrnes scholars, or if you're a scholar trying to track down another scholar, check out its web site.