Emma Jane McDermott left a lasting mark on Rock Hill with her talents in music, teaching and social justice.
McDermott, who died last week at 88, founded the Junior Woman's Club, taught at Winthrop Training School and won a seat in the state Legislature, where she fought on behalf of women and the poor.
But it was her amazing "warble" that many may remember best. With a songbird-like style of whistling, McDermott entertained audiences in homes and venues across town.
After her husband, the Rev. W.L. "Billy Mac" McDermott, was ordained an Episcopal priest, the McDermotts moved away for church assignments in Abbeville and later the mountains of Virginia.
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The couple's time in Rock Hill, from 1947 to 1968, was filled with activity.
In 1953, Emma Jane, or "E.J." as she was known, was the first mother elected to the state House, winning on a platform of nursing home reform.
"At that time, they called them the poor folks' homes," said daughter Lucinda McDermott Piro, who lives in Radford, Va.
"Some of the conditions were just deplorable. She helped establish some standards."
McDermott led a campaign for women to gain the right to serve on juries in South Carolina. An initial measure failed by 18 votes, but the effort later found success.
Ties to Winthrop
Her husband was an art professor, 16 years older, and the courtship had been kept secret through notes passed in textbooks. The dean of students at Mary Washington College held the engagement ring until after Emma Jane graduated, an obituary stated.
The McDermotts moved to Rock Hill when Billy Mac joined the fine arts department at Winthrop College. They lived in a house on College Avenue.
Warbling was always a cherished hobby, said daughter Julie McDermott Imeson. Billy Mac accompanied his wife on the viola with friend Helen Brawley on the accordion.
"She would go down the halls of schools, and people would stop in their tracks and listen to her," Imeson said. "She loved to entertain."
After her husband's death in 1992, McDermott lived in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, staying active in senior citizens issues and working for a time as hostess at Clara's restaurant in Manteo.
"She had the ability to light up a room," Piro said. "In an age when women were still expected to be like June Cleaver, she had several careers, and she was successful in everything she did."