COLUMBIA — Here’s what you should know about South Carolina’s Mothers of the Year: There are no shrinking violets in the bunch.
Many raised housefuls of children while managing farms and breaking barriers in business and society. They were “doers” who rarely sat on the sidelines. And, it turns out, they helped shape modern South Carolina.
“The influence of these mothers knows no bounds,” former South Carolina first lady Ann Edwards said Thursday as the Mothers of the Year, their families and friends gathered for a special 70th anniversary lunch at Forest Lake Country Club.
Fifteen of the 19 living Mothers of the Year traveled to Columbia in recognition of a tradition that began in 1942 with the selection of Alice Elizabeth Moore Arthur of Union, a woman who knew the meaning of sacrifice, having sent four sons to fight in World War I and five sons to World War II battlefields.
The occasion also served as a moment to unveil a book that profiles the mothers, a compilation that Edwards encouraged in her role as former first lady and longtime member of the S.C. Mothers Association search committee. Martha Cranford and Shirley Fishburne, both of Rock Hill, took up the challenge of writing “Seventy Years of Remarkable Women,” aided by archivists and historians at Winthrop University.
“We had boxes of old files and wonderful scrapbooks,” Cranford said. The women were introduced to the rich archive of The State newspaper, which sponsored the Mother of the Year award for many years and ran front-page displays of the mother who received the recognition.
“It really was a journey through changing times,” said Cranford, current chairwoman of the S.C. Mothers Association. Cranford, a Mississippi native, said she began the book expecting “a lot of well-kept women drinking tea.”
But the women who earned the honor through the years turned out to be a hardy bunch, some enduring grave misfortune including the deaths of spouses and children but still moving forward and breaking barriers in education, politics and law.
Clemmie Webber, an Orangeburg professor, was the first African-American to be honored with Mother of the Year in 1983. She went on to become National Mother of the Year, an honor that three other South Carolina women also claim, including Nancy Dinwiddie Hawk of Charleston, May Roper Coker of Hartsville and Betty Ulmer McGregor of Eastover.
It wasn’t an easy task to select the top mother, said Gwen Howell of Spartanburg, who served on a number of search committees.
“It was very difficult because they were all outstanding,” Howell said.
The scrapbooks and collected research from families and newspapers will now be placed in the archives of Winthrop University, where Jennifer Disney, director of women’s studies, said it will provide a rich trove of material for future historians.
Thursday was a day for the mothers to celebrate and take photographs. Admiring adult children accompanied the women, including the seven sons and daughters of Miriam Gulledge of Chesterfield. She was named Mother of the Year in 2012, and since the anniversary luncheon took the place of an award in 2013, “I guess I still am,” she laughed.