Sandlapper Society

Grade 8: Byrnes Legacy

Grade Level: Grade 8
Subject Areas Addressed: History
To download complete lesson plan, click here.

The Byrnes Legacy of Scholarship

by Aïda Rogers
lesson plan by Lisa Ray, NBCT

In South Carolina—or American—history, it’d be hard to find a more remarkable man than James Francis Byrnes. United States congressman and senator, Supreme Court justice, secretary of state and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “assistant president” during World War II, Byrnes was even more remarkable for what he didn’t do: go to high school or college. Natural smarts and his ability to take shorthand—lessons administered by his insistent mother—allowed him to pass the state bar exam during a brief career as a court reporter and newspaper editor. All in One Lifetime is the aptly titled autobiography that, with his earlier book Speaking Frankly, financially supported what he considered his greatest achievement: sending orphans and half-orphans to school.

“He had a great amount of compassion,” recalled the late Buddy Prioleau, Byrnes’ early press secretary and personal lawyer. In a 1992 speech to those orphans and half-orphans, Prioleau recounted how Byrnes—born in 1879 to a widowed dressmaker in Charleston—was so worried about his mother’s late-night sewing that he quit school in seventh grade to help with family finances. Compassion fueled his scholarship program, formed in 1948 for South Carolina students who had lost one or both parents. Byrnes and his wife Maude had a few other restrictions: Recipients had to prove financial need and exhibit a community-minded spirit and the willingness to work to pay for their education. The Byrnes scholarship would pay for half the tuition of a state-supported school.

“They thought it would last 15 to 20 years, and here we are in our 60th year,” reflects Bill Rowe, 78, a Chattanooga surgeon who grew up in Georgetown. Rowe, the oldest Byrnes Scholar and chairman of the James F. Byrnes Foundation board of directors, says the scholarship changed his life. He knows it also changed the lives of the 1,150-some other Byrnes Scholars. Of those, the foundation can account for about 675. Rowe and other active scholars are looking for their missing “brothers and sisters,” as they’re considered because “Mom and Pop Byrnes” considered them their children.

“We don’t know how many are deceased; we don’t know how many don’t have an interest; we do know who has responded,” Rowe says of the foundation’s search. To celebrate 60 years, the foundation and its alumni group are planning an extra-special program for its annual June luncheon in Columbia. “We hope to get scholars who have not been involved and let them know that we’re doing what we’ve been doing all along—keeping students in school.”

There were 30 students in the first class, all chosen by the Byrneses. For 2009, six freshmen scholars are chosen by the board, which is composed of former scholars. The board would like to give 12 to 16 new scholarships a year, allowing 50 to 60 scholars to remain in school at one time, but that’s determined by the budget. “Mobilizing” alumni to give money for scholarships will allow the foundation to seek more funds from corporations and other entities, Rowe says. The goal is $2.2 million; the foundation has $1.9 million in cash, five-year planned giving and estate legacy giving.

But money isn’t the only thing this 60th anniversary is about. It’s about reunion. And homecoming.

“Some scholars who haven’t been involved will come back because we’re a family and we need them,” Rowe insists. “Financially is fine but being involved is equally important.”

Rowe’s words echo the Byrneses’ commitment that their scholarship be “more than a check.” Being a Byrnes Scholar meant a personal and even parental relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Byrnes, themselves childless. “We had hoped from the beginning, by restricting the awards to orphans—one or two parents deceased—to try to take the place in some measure, anyway, of the deceased parent; to try to give a young person the feeling that somebody cares for them; try to give them freedom to appeal to us whenever we can help,” Byrnes said before he died in 1972. “Not solely during those years in college but in all the years that follow, whenever you think we can be of any service.”

After a soaring public career in Washington, Byrnes came home expecting a quieter life practicing law in Spartanburg. Friends talked him into running for governor, an office he won handily. From 1951 to 1955, scholars visited their beloved benefactors at the Governor’s Mansion in Columbia (though the unpretentious Byrnes used the word “home” instead of “mansion”). Students sang around the piano; “Carolina Moon” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” two of Byrnes’ favorite songs, still are sung at Byrnes events. Scholars visited the Byrnes’ beach house at Isle of Palms, where they were treated to ice cream and boat rides. Later, the Byrneses sold that home to keep their scholarship foundation going.

As his health failed, a group of older scholars decided to provide younger scholars with the personal attention they had received. In 1975, Rev. Hal Norton of Surfside Beach, a member of the first class, began organizing a weekend gathering at Chapel by the Sea in Garden City. Large suppers, talent shows and “Beach Olympics” bring students together. Many bond for life. They vacation together and put one another up when passing through town. In one case, a “brother” and “sister” married. The June luncheon is a friendly, somewhat formal occasion; “Fall Dinners” are evening meals scholars share in the towns where they’re in school. Bu“Super Weekend” at Garden City Beach, where scholars range from 18 to 78 and some bring children and grandchildren, is when new scholars soak up the nurturing that Gov. and Mrs. Byrnes always wanted them to have.

“People travel far and wide to attend these events and to have that interaction and relationships with the younger students,” says board member Jamie Rhodes, 33, a Laurens native and Charlotte banker. He didn’t miss Super Weekend during his eight years in New York, and notes how Jabbar Stackston, 34, traveled from Guatemala for Super Weekend 2009. Unplanned beach strolls and late-night bunk chats allow scholars to talk about losing their parents—something not so easily done with their friends who haven’t experienced such pain. “United by Loss–Bound by Love” is the group’s motto.

Potential scholars are interviewed by the foundation board. While all have sad stories, some have horrific ones. Board members agonize about who gets a scholarship. They would like to help them all. “You want to be a part of their lives and see what you can do to help them because you understand exactly what they’ve been through,” explains board member Jeanette Cothran, 75, of Greenville. “Because of your gratitude for what happened because of the scholarship, you want to, as they say, pay it forward.”

Spoken like a true daughter of Maude and Jimmy Byrnes.

* * *

You can learn more about statesman James F. Byrnes and the James F. Byrnes scholarship program at the Web site. 


Back to the top