Even though he couldn't spend Mother's Day with his mom, the Rev. Sam McGregor Jr., pastor of Allison Creek Presbyterian Church in Lake Wylie, proudly shared her with the whole nation after Betty McGregor was recently honored as the 2009 National Mother of the Year.
“She is someone who has never sought to be out in the limelight,” Sam McGregor Jr. said. “She is someone who did what she did with passion, never calling attention to herself.”
He said his mother was even a little embarrassed by the national attention.
For years, Betty McGregor kept a framed map of the world in the breakfast nook and welcomed international students around the table as she and her husband, Sam, raised their five children.
The family farm, Laurington Dairy Farm, kept the McGregors rooted in the core values of work, family and community in Lower Richland, but the map and new faces also revealed to her children places beyond the fields.
“They found out the world was larger than Hopkins,” said Betty McGregor.
Her oldest son Jimmy McGregor believes that was a deliberate decision on his mother’s part, this willingness to expose her children to different experiences and foster the gifts and talents of each one.
But the 79-year-old McGregor gently begs to differ. “They all followed what they were led to follow. They were themselves.”
Among the five are two Presbyterian ministers, the Rev. Elizabeth “Lib” McGregor Simmons and the Rev. Sam McGregor Jr.; an engineer, Jimmy McGregor; a Clemson professor, John McGregor; and a health professional, Jean McGregor Trice.
Still, in her acceptance speech for National Mother of the Year, a competition sponsored by American Mother Inc., McGregor made it clear motherhood isn’t all gooey Hallmark card sentiment and trouble-free times
In fact, she said, life’s problems and tragedies can clear the way for people to show what they are really made of: strength, compassion, resilience.
“There are so many things you can teach children by your actions,” she said.
She was, and still is, an inveterate “doer” and community activist, rising at 5 a.m. to pray and then tend the financial books of her family and her community organizations.
Her children, she said, “had the best of both worlds,” with the wide-open outdoors of the farm and close proximity to cultural activities in Columbia.
For a time in the 1960s, they wrote a family newspaper, the McGregor News, which recorded life in the busy household.
They cared for two elderly parents in their home, a lesson in compassion she believes particularly shaped the life of her youngest son, who was present for the final years of his paternal grandfather’s life.
With a 14-year span between her oldest daughter, Lib, and her youngest son, Sam, there were endless rounds of dance lessons, Cub scouts (the pack met in a converted chicken house on their property), church and school activities.
“She basically devoted her whole life to her children, but it wasn’t in a smothering kind of way,” said Jimmy McGregor, a civil engineer with Exxon Mobil in Houston. “It was in a way that constantly embraced freedom and individuality.
“She somehow found a way for each of us to feel special individually and that set up an unbelievable belief in our own self-worth and confidence.”
Betty McGregor can hardly fathom the concept of the modern-day “helicopter parent,” and while she admires parents with the expertise and patience to home school, she always liked the idea that her children were mixing it up with people beyond the front door.
During the upheaval of school integration in the 1970s, when other white families pulled out of public schools, the McGregors chose to keep their children at Lower Richland High.
“We thought we ought to keep our children in public schools,” said Sam McGregor, who sat on the Richland 1 board for 10 years. “I’m still a cheerleader for public schools.”
Lib McGregor Simmons, senior minister at Davidson College Presbyterian Church in Davidson, N.C., said her parents “have these core values that are very outward-focused. If you look over the past decade of acquisitiveness and greed, that was very explicitly challenged in our family life, both verbally and non-verbally.”
The McGregors, married 58 years, presented a united front, she said, “which was a very strong symbol for me in terms of courage.”
Simmons remembers throwing an adolescent fit when her parents felt called to leave Shandon Presbyterian Church, a church they loved, to foster the fledgling Trinity Presbyterian Church off Garners Ferry Road.
Simmons figured she would simply ride with her grandparents, who were still members of Shandon, but her parents refused.
“They were loving, but very, very firm with me that we would go to church as a family,” she said.
McGregor, who was born Betty Jean Ulmer in Cameron, said she always believed children should be supplied roots and wings.
So when each child chose to leave the farm for careers that took them to other parts of the world, she and her husband did not grieve — even though that meant they would eventually sell the farm, keeping only their house and a few acres. All three boys considered farming but ultimately chose other professions.
Sam McGregor Jr. majored in dairy science before deciding to go into the ministry. He said all five of the McGregor children “have pursued careers that build upon” service.
“That was something that was always very important to Mom — that we use our gifts to serve others,” he said.
The McGregors never applied pressure, because she always believed in letting her children “think for themselves.”
She also had a life away from the family when the children were young, taking Thursdays off to go into town and do something for herself, whether doing community work or shopping on her own.
“I didn’t think five children were too much,” she said, “I wanted three, Sam wanted four, and we compromised at five.” Now a grandmother to eight grandchildren, she delights in inviting them to come to the farm for summer stays without their parents.
And even though the family is now spread over four states, and the occasional foreign country, they remain connected by a bond that seems unbreakable. Last summer, the extended family gathered on Fripp Island for a family vacation, a memory that Betty McGregor holds dear.
“There, up early and on the decks, you’d find the McGregors, drinking coffee and discussing the problems of the world.”
As for the national recognition, Sam McGregor Jr. called the award surprising but appropriate for the McGregor matriarch.
“You don't expect your own mother to be recognized as National Mother of the Year,” he said, “… but I think (she has) a story that our culture is longing to hear.
“There's no better representative — I think — of what motherhood should be.”
— Herald reporter Rebekah Lewis contributed to this story.