They might not be able to get a scarf around the tower at Cherry Park, but admirers of Betty Jo Rhea are doing the next best thing to honor Rock Hill's former mayor.
The tower will be named in honor of Rhea, who has served as Cherry Park's chief ambassador since she helped get it built nearly a quarter-century ago. Now 77, Rhea couldn't help but chuckle at the irony because she and others bucked criticism for pushing a center-city park in the first place.
"It was a fight to get Cherry Park going," Rhea said from her home on Grady Drive, where she is recovering from recent hip replacement surgery. "I told someone one time, I have lots of whiplash scars because people thought it was such a boondoggle. Now, it's well-known everywhere."
Cherry Park's beginnings are the stuff of local legend. Before the park was built in 1985, many people opposed it, and two City Council members lost their seats largely because of their support. Today, the park hosts a number of national softball tournaments and generates $4 million in tourism dollars each year. Thousands use the walking trails, playground and picnic area.
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"Betty Jo stuck to her guns," said Mayor Doug Echols, who got ousted along with Melford Wilson for supporting the park. "Now, we've got this wonderful amenity. The building itself is a perfect recognition of her."
A place in her heart
Rhea and her late husband, Jimmy, would drive through Cherry Park just about every day to admire the flowers and watch people play on the fields. Whenever Jimmy spotted something out of place, he'd call John Taylor in the city's Parks, Recreation & Tourism Department to get it fixed.
"She was like a mother to me," Taylor said. "I was a young boy coming in from out of town. She always cared about me and my family. I think that's what endeared her to a lot of folks."
Jimmy Rhea died in August after years of declining health. Betty Jo, his wife of 57 years, was a constant at his side. She is now getting around with the help of a walker and cane, and even does some driving nowadays.
"I think she's in wonderful spirits and is doing remarkably well," said lifelong friend Ann Herlong. "I'm thrilled to death that this is being done. She deserves it. It (the park) wouldn't be there if it hadn't been for Betty Jo."
In addition to her famous collection of scarfs, Rhea has an elaborate scrapbook from her time as mayor, and one page features a photo of her throwing out the first pitch at a softball tournament back in the 1980s.
"Cherry Park's just been a place in my heart," Rhea said. "I feel like it's been one of my children."
As for how to decorate the tower for a naming ceremony planned in May, Rhea was quick with an idea. "Maybe we could fly a scarf from the top or something," she said.