May 6, 2014

Winthrop alum Lois Rhame West, former SC first lady and ‘bright light,’ dies

Lois Rhame West, an alumna of Winthrop University and a longtime advocate for wellness, physical fitness and health care policies, has died. She was 92.

Lois Rhame West, an alumna of Winthrop University and a longtime advocate for wellness and physical fitness, died Tuesday at her home on Hilton Head Island. She was 92.

The Lois Rhame West Health, Physical Education and Wellness Center on the Winthrop campus is named for the wife of the late Gov. John C. West, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

“There is no doubt that Lois left this world better than she found it in ways that extend beyond her service as first lady,” former Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio said Tuesday. “She exemplified to (Saudi Arabia) all the good that can come from the recognition and advancement of women.

“Throughout her life, her dedication to wellness and physical education, plus her example of service beyond self, made her an impressive role model.”

Gov. West appointed now-U.S. Rep. James Clyburn as the state’s human affairs commissioner in 1974, making him the first black adviser to a South Carolina governor.

Lois West “was a bright light in the governor’s life – both sharp and sincere,” said Clyburn, D-Columbia. “Her personality and graciousness were undeniable, and she will surely be missed.”

West, a native of Camden, graduated in 1943 from what was then Winthrop College with a degree in physical education. She was a stand-out athlete in field hockey, tennis and golf.

She was the first Winthrop student to marry while in school and still go on to graduate. Winthrop was a woman’s college until the early 1970s.

West taught at the University of South Carolina while her husband completed law school and was active in his Democratic campaign for governor. She made promoting physical education her focus during her years as first lady, from 1971 to 1975.

Much of that tenure was marked by racial tension in South Carolina, and that’s when Lois West’s toughness showed itself. Gov. West’s promise in his inaugural address to rid state government of “any vestige of discrimination” and make it “colorblind” was met with death threats from Ku Klux Klansmen.

“If they did something, there were enough Klan members on the grand jury (that) nobody ever got indicted,” Lois West said in a 1998 interview for a University of South Carolina oral history project. “The Grand Dragon lived down near me .. .so I sent him a message that if anything happened to John, he didn’t have to worry about the grand jury, because I’d come kill him right then.

“I said, ‘Now you just remember, whether you do it or anybody else does it, I’m going to get four of you before daylight.’... Boy, they were careful about us after that, because they knew I meant it – and I did.”

But Lois West never let the bad overcome the good in her life.

“In the long run, there are more good people than bad people,” she said in the 1998 interview. “This is a good state. It’s a nice place to live. Of all the places we’ve been, this is the best.

“I’m content because I’m not real hard to please. Wherever I am, I’m happy.”

West and her family were among Winthrop’s first major donors, starting the Lois Rhame West Scholars program in the mid-1980s to provide full scholarships to South Carolina residents.

In 1998, she was co-chairwoman of Winthrop’s first capital campaign, which raised more than $30 million to help pay for scholarships, improved academic programs and more faculty research opportunities.

“I went to Winthrop, and I’m trying to help a little bit with their fundraising,” West said in the USC interview. “We’re not in the league with the University of South Carolina – almost $300 million.

“We’re not that greedy,” she added with a laugh. “We’ll settle for less.”

Ten years later, Winthrop would recognize her efforts by naming the West Center in her honor.

West also was a longtime leader of the Cub Scouts and the Girl Scouts, and served on the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America Board of Directors for 40 years. She was the MDA’s first female president.

“While it might be considered unusual today, she worked across partisan divides for important causes,” DiGiorgio said, pointing out that the late Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell was co-chairman of Winthrop’s first capital campaign. “She worked for other causes, too, and that’s what made her part of America’s greatest generation.

“At the same time, she had a wonderful sense of humor and could tell a political story with grace, wit and a constant twinkle in her eye that made spending time with her a joy.”

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