Sandlapper Society

Nest Builder

Richland County’s Betty McGregor
is America’s Top Mom

by Ceille Baird Welch

Amid the hub and bustle of another city airport, at the winding down of a whirlwind year, Betty Jean Ulmer McGregor – role model, spokesperson, ambassador – takes the arm of her husband Sam and thinks of home, the cozy little farmhouse in Hopkins where lives were made.

In 2009 Betty McGregor had received South Carolina’s highest honor for motherhood. Now she held the highest honor in the nation.

The resume of this National Mother of the Year presents a woman of boundless energy, a community servant, an advocate, someone with the ability to assess what’s needed and the gumption to go out there and get it. But it’s the flesh and blood Mom that boggles the mind and delights the heart. It’s the nest builder.

Betty spoke of wanting three. Sam mentioned having four.

But quick as a calf could blink its eye, there were five little McGregors: Lib, Jean, Jimmy, Johnny, and baby Sam, all sprouted up and growing like wildflowers at Laurinton, the McGregor family dairy farm in Lower Richland County. “Sam and I considered each child a unique and special blessing,” she says.

Betty Jean Ulmer grew up in the picturesque village of Cameron before packing her bags for Columbia College. She would earn a degree in early childhood education and put it to use with her own. “My childhood was rooted in family and faith, but I was also given room to grow. I was determined to offer my children the same.”

She cherishes the memory of being allowed as a sixth-grader to inherit her big brother’s paper route. “Some people were shocked,” Sam says, laughing. “She was always little for her age, so she looked
much younger.”

“Maybe they were shocked because I was a girl,” Betty retorts, “and I could sling a pretty good newspaper from a bike!” With her earnings, thinking ahead to seventh grade typing class, she bought a typewriter of her very own.

Sam McGregor was born to dairy farming. After honing his skills at Clemson, he returned to the family farm. Dairy was in his blood. He would teach his own brood the ins and outs of it. Would show them responsibility by his example.

“Dairy farming is not an easy job,” Betty says. “A dairyman’s day begins at 4 in the morning, and you never know what might spring up. But then,” she adds, “life is not about having no problems. It’s about how you deal with them.”

Little Sammy, now The Rev. Sam McGregor of Rock Hill, remembers:  “One day Daddy told me to go out and agitate the milk. I guess I wasn’t quite sure how to do that so I decided to turn a valve.” Like a blast from a fire hose, more than 400 gallons of milk surprised the youngster square in the chest.

“Poor little Sammy,” Betty recalls, “we lost the milk that day and he sat outside and cried and cried.” Even now the pain of the young boy’s disappointment shows on his mother’s face. “We explained to him that it was an accident. As a family we grieved with him, and consoled him. Then we gathered together for prayer.”

The growing McGregors gathered together quite a bit in those days. “And they were wonderful days,” she reminisces, “days filled with our own creativity and unencumbered by television and computers.”

Family was paramount. There were designated mealtimes and scripture readings. There were family clubs. “Our book club was so active that the children decided to make their own library in the family room. We catalogued all our books.” Richland County’s bookmobile began to schedule regular stops
at Laurinton.

From a desk drawer, Betty takes out a stack of loose pages and a stenographer’s notebook. She hands the pages to Sam. “We formed the McGregor Family Council,” she says, “with each of us serving in some capacity. Sam was President. I was Vice President.”

She reads from the notebook: “‘The Vice President drove the Secretary to her dancing lessons this week.’ Also, ‘Treasurer Jean McGregor reports that no money has been taken up, so she said next time bring some money. Submitted by Lib McGregor, Secretary.’”

Sam shows off a copy of the McGregor News. “‘Maybe Johnny will be a scientist,’” he reads. “‘He likes to mix things. One of his latest mixtures has been salt, pepper, chocolate and milk.’” Sam laughs. Johnny McGregor is now a Food Science professor at Clemson.

“This is one of my favorites,” he says. “It’s unsigned. ‘The McGregor children have organized a secret organization. No information is available since it is secret. However, it does meet in the tree house.’ ”

“I was fortunate to be a stay-at-home mom,” Betty says. “I was able to cart the children to lessons and clubs and sporting matches. I encouraged public school activities and if a volunteer was needed I was able to raise my hand.”

The McGregor children had the best of worlds. At one hand there was Laurinton and Lower Richland’s great outdoors; on the other, there was Columbia with Columbia’s big town opportunities. Between the two, there was a growing community need, and with the McGregor family among the founding congregation, Trinity Presbyterian Church on Greenlawn Drive was born.

 “We’ve been so blessed,” Betty says. “That’s not to say we haven’t weathered hardships in our 58 years of marriage, because like all families, we have.”

Suddenly Sam wants to know if he can show the valentine.

“Every year since 1990 she’s sent me this same one,” he says. The valentine is written all over. “She says it’s no sense buying a new one because her love for me is the same as it always was.”

Betty McGregor is an embarrassed romantic. She blushes and changes the subject. “With spouses and children, there are 21 of us now. Jimmy built a table that can seat us all.”

Recalling a recent McGregor vacation, Sam paints a picture of that extended family – 21 strong, gathered in early morning on a beach house dock. They’re cradling steaming cups of coffee or cocoa.

Eyes half shut, a little one groans. A teenager yawns. But neither wants to miss anything, because the others are already deep in conversation. They’re hypothetically solving the problems of the world, while the sun rises over the ocean.

Among the seven original McGregors there are two ministers, a nurse, a civil engineer, and a professor of science. But there was once a time when they were all dairy farmers, and not accustomed to sleeping in.  

* * *

Ceille Baird Welch is a poet, playwright, and freelance writer in Lower Richland County.

This article is sponsored by Columbia College.

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