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He lit a flame in the hearts of of young people

Following is the text of 1949 Scholar Hal Norton's address at the Byrnes Foundation 43rd annual luncheon, June 10, 2006.

Rev. Hal Norton

One of the greatest blessings that God ever gave to me is to allow me to become a Byrnes scholar. I have never taken it lightly, I have always been proud to tell anybody anywhere that I am a Byrnes scholar. I realize being invited to speak this time that some barrels get deeper than others because some of you are thinking right now, “They scraped the bottom for our speaker this year.” But, it is good to be here and be your speaker and I understood exactly what they meant.

I got nervous - Lois, I have never seen her do anything in the short time - and she did a wonderful job talking about two people, I was the good one in that introduction, and I don't know who in the world the other one was; but in preparing for this, it is the hardest thing that I have ever attempted to prepare for. I laid out my material and I saw that I could stand right here and speak for two hours, and then I thought the last hour and a half, there wouldn't be anybody here to hear it, so why do it. It was really tough, I had to dissect what I wanted to say.

Going back through the years there have been so many things that I wanted to share, and I know that I heard, and you have heard, about the Governor, about the Senator, about the Assistant President, the Supreme Court Justice. You have read in books about this man, and we have heard all about them. So, when Jerry asked me to come - and I appreciate that Jerry, thank you - but I thought what is it that you have that they might like to hear, and I almost came up with nothing. Then I thought, you know what I would like to do is to share with them some of the things that I remember through those years about knowing the Byrnes' personally, some experiences that we shared, and I want to tell you that such as Toby, this past time at the beach, shared some of his thoughts of the Byrnes'. There are others in here who knew them and they have their own thoughts. Let me just share a few things that happened during the time that I knew them, for after all of this time they had been leaving to go to Washington and then to become international figures.

You know, Governor Byrnes was one of the most influential men in the world, not simply in South Carolina. You study your history, and you will learn that. He came very close to being the President of the greatest nation on earth. He really walked with kings, emperors, premiers, and yet, there was something missing in their lives - and I want you to remember this most importantly, that though they had obtained so many things that were of an international flavor, they had missed something that was very important: they had no children. A life had short-changed them in one way, and so they decided they wanted to do something about it. That is why they came back at the ripe old age of 70 years old and decided that they were going to have them some children, and I learned even in the wording of my being notified that I had received a Byrnes scholarship, he gave us a clue as to what they had in mind.

Let me read what he wrote. He announced that they had given me a scholarship and he said, “I want to do more for the young people awarded scholarships than to merely contribute financially. I want to help you with your problems. During your college life, you must feel free to write me at any time you think I may be of assistance, I want you to make good.” Little could I dream that with that beginning letter that he meant that. He really meant it, and for the next say 25 years, every note that I ever wrote to them, every flower that I ever sent, every call that I ever made, every visit when I stopped by - every time there was an acknowledgement. Every time. I don’t do nearly so well, and I didn’t have all of those people to write to, and they were times of real encouragement.

I do know of something that really stood out to me right from the very beginning was that he was the one who was making these selections. The thoughts that he would call somebody in my county and my hometown and check on me, man, that was something. I wasn't a big man then, I wasn't important like I am today. I was just sort of an average fellow, you know, but that he would do that! And let me tell you how long that I know he did it. For 10 years, I know that he made the selections, because my sister, who is on the Board, ten years later applied for a scholarship. I was doing some teaching in Marion High School to supplement my work down at the beach. They didn't pay me anything in the winter, didn't think I was worth much in the summer. They paid me $40 and thought they were stretching it a little bit. But one day I was sitting in the cafeteria, and the coach was sitting across the table, Shannon Wilkerson, and boy, she was a legend. She got a phone call in the kitchen and she came back in and said, “Guess who that was? James F. Byrnes, our Governor.” She was thrilled, and he said, “Ms. Wilkerson, get your recommendation in for Nancy Norton, I already know her better than you do.” I wrote him a letter, she got the scholarship and I was thrilled, and I wrote: “Dear Governor Byrnes, I cannot tell you what my scholarship has meant to me for these 10 years, and I can tell you that Nancy is going to be blessed beyond her understanding, and I really do believe that she is going to be a great blessing to you and Mrs. Byrnes. I certainly think so and I hope so, but I want to warn you: don't expect as much out of her as you have gotten out of me.” I got a letter right quick, right back: “Dear Hal, you are a fine young man, but the truth is not one of your virtues.”

Well, I was like Lois, that meeting in Spartanburg, now that was the first time I have ever learned that she was in awe of me like she was. I don't know if you would word it just like that, I know you said you were in awe, and I just assume that (Editor’s Note: Lois said, “I don't think I said that.”), she doesn't think she said that, but I heard her. You know, we had a time. We were from a little metropolis like Rains, Marion, or Mullins, so forth, and here we were surrounded by Twentieth Century Fox and a news reel taking pictures of all of us, and there were newspapermen from all over the countryside. It was amazing, because he had come back having served President Truman as his Secretary of State, returning to his home state and here he was with all of these young men, and oh, man, they were everywhere covering him. You know what I remembered about him so much, he was so impressive: he kept his hand in his pocket a good bit, and he was in control. Mrs. Byrnes was just beautiful, letting her Jimmy do whatever he wanted to do, and that was such a time.

Well let me move on, there was another two years later. We were joined, I think we had about 73 students then and he took us as Governor and he took us out on one of the boats there in Charleston, the Coast Guard, and I was so impressed when they saluted him. You know, it is funny what you remember, isn't it. But I knew we were in the high cotton, and I was sure they were saluting him and me. I don't know how I got in there, but I had gotten in his car with him and Mrs. Byrnes and Willie Byrd. There might have been another student or two, I don't know, I wasn't really carried away with anybody else at that time. He said, “I want to get on the bus, I want to ride with the students,” and I said, “That is great, leave me your hat.” And he said, “My hat?” and I said, “Yes sir, I want to be governor for the day.” And I took that hat, and you know, when they saw that license plate Number One, rolled up there, blew the horn and starting waving, I just waved that hat. I felt so important that day, so important. You know, it is easy to see how that transition left being Governor and Mrs. Byrnes to “Mom” and “Pop” Byrnes, because they were interested in everything that we were interested in.

I wrote them about a student one day, some years had gone by. This young man’s name was Mason, and I wrote this letter. I said, “I am writing to you about a young man in our community. His dad is living but he isn't much of a dad. He isn’t eligible for our scholarship, but I am writing to you, not because we can give him any money, but I am writing to you because the shadows of your lives lengthen with every passing day; because you blessed my life, I am reaching out to somebody else.” And I got this letter back pretty soon, very soon; “Hal, I realize that this young man is not eligible for our scholarship, but we want to be a part of this, Maude and I do. That is why I am enclosing a check for $500.” I thought that was wonderful. There was a heart that had done, and done, and done, and done, and yet, a strange young man whom he would never see named Mason, he wanted to help, but he didn’t send any money. I called him and I said, “That is the nicest letter you wrote me, but there was no money in that letter.” He said, “I told Maude just as soon as I mailed it, ‘I forgot to put the durn check in there’.” And I said, “Well, I want to tell you that you are right, you forgot, but it not too late, get it on the road.” That was so typical, so typical of them.

When General Lucius Clay, a dear friend of his, Deputy Military Governor in Germany, who was there when the Berlin Wall was built, came to Columbia, he asked a couple of us to go to the airport and meet General Clay with him. You know what that said to me. I have looked at some pictures today and it made me feel so good, because they are pictures of some of your children. There is nothing in the world that you are prouder of, and he was so proud of us, that he wanted this General, one of the big men of the world, to meet some of his children. He wanted then, even though he was coming here to speak, and would see a lot of us, he wanted it to be a little more personal, so he wanted us to be there.

I like what Mr. Porter McKeever said when he came to Columbia. He was Assistant Secretary of State under Governor Byrnes, and he spoke to us that day and I will tell you what he closed with. He said, “When he was leaving Washington, he told us he was going home and run for Governor, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Mr. Byrnes, you are an international figure, people from all over the world are going to be calling you and asking for your advice, and you are telling me you are going home and running for Governor for the State of South Carolina’.” And he said Mr. Byrnes replied, “The people of South Carolina made it possible for me to come to Washington. If they want me as their Governor, the least I can do is go home and see if I can be elected.” I was deeply touched by that remark that day. I thought of Rudyard Kipling’s lines when he says, “If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue, if you can walk with kings nor lose the common touch,” and I thought that is who that man is, exactly. He has walked with the greatest powers on earth, and yet extended his hand to people who had lost their parents.

He then got into a little issue that bothered me. He got into the racial issue that day, and I thought to myself, “I hope you are not going to get into trouble.” And it was the next day that I received a call from Laverne Robinson, who many of us know, and he said, “Rev. Norton, I can't tell you how much I appreciate what was said yesterday,” and he said, “Please, if you happen to be speaking with Mr. McKeever, would you tell him what that meant to me.” I thought about that, I let a day or two pass and I said, “perhaps I won't see him for a long time.” So I called Mr. McKeever in New York, and I said, “Porter, I have got to tell you what a student said about your remarks.” And he said, “Hal, the tears are running down my cheeks as you talk to me now. Thank you for calling.” Two months later, he suddenly died of a heart attack.

It was a big day here in Columbia when on the 90th birthday, when the Byrnes' couldn't go to Washington, President and Mrs. Nixon came to Columbia. It was a great day, and Willie Byrd - and you would have to know Willie Byrd, he was their chauffeur, but he was more than that; he was a dear friend and somewhat of a confidant. Carol Ann and I took Mrs. Byrnes out to eat one night and Willie Byrd was a piece of art, if you could have heard him. “Mrs. Byrnes, turn. Mrs. Byrnes, put your feet down. Mrs. Byrnes, stand up.” Everything with great love. And I was around at Willie Byrd’s house not long after that, and there was that picture of the Nixons with the Byrnes’ and Willie Byrd, and I said, “Willie Byrd, you didn't get the Nixons to autograph it.” He said, “It all moved too fast.” I said, “Do you want to risk your picture, I will send it to President Nixon and ask him to autograph it for you, it may get bent. Want to chance it?” He said, “Let's do it.” Mr. Nixon autographed it and he sent it right back to him right away.

I was around at Mr. Byrnes house about two days before he died. I knew that he didn’t need to see me, he wasn’t well enough. I was in speaking to “Mom” Byrnes and he heard my voice. The nurse came out and said, “Is Hal Norton in this room?” I said, “Yes, he is.” She said, “Mr. Byrnes wants to see him.” She looked at me and said, “Please don't stay too long.” And I said, “I won’t.” I walked in and he looked up, the light was in his eye and he couldn’t recognize me. She said, “Do you know who this is?” and he said he will when he hears my voice. I spoke, and I said, “You know what, the greatest thing of all of this man’s accomplishments, of all of them, was he gave me a scholarship,” and “Pop” Byrnes said, “And I didn’t even know it.” I said, “I am one of your preacher boys, you know, I've got a right to pray.” And I knelt by his bed and we prayed. I apologized a little later; I said to the nurse, “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to stay that long.” She said, “Please don’t apologize. I saw the grip that he had on your hand.”

It was only natural that Billy Graham should speak, for the first crusade that Billy Graham ever held was here in Columbia, and “Mom” and “Pop” Byrnes supported him and sat up there giving the endorsement to this man, a man who will forever be their friend. It was very natural that General Clay gave the eulogy, a best friend. Certainly, when the plane came in from Washington with Mrs. Nixon, Number One, with about 50 of the most important men in this country, to see them there with Mrs. Nixon sitting there with Mrs. Byrnes… . But you know what even I thought gave it as great an impact as anything in the world: there were estimated 300 Byrnes scholars who followed the casket from the State House to the Episcopal Cemetery and then lined the route for the casket to come through out to the grave. It was a beautiful day, and a very meaningful day, and one long in our memory.

So you can see how very difficult this has been for me to limit my time. Let me go just a few more minutes. I love the way speakers say that, like you can say no. But I am going anyway. Let me tell you what a few Byrnes scholars said, and there were many others. I couldn’t quote them all, didn’t completely quote these. Ralph Gregory said, “It was the only way that I could have gone to college, it changed my whole life.” Jake Salley said, “Being from a small town, I hadn’t really been associated with up-in-the-world people. Then all of a sudden, I was knocking on his front door.” Bobby Mallard said, “I had no parents, I used to talk with him about whatever came up, little ole piddling things to big things. I will never forget the things that he taught me.” And I know that Ruthie would have said, “Thank God that Bobby didn’t sing to him.”

There was a luncheon that we had asked the Governor to speak. He couldn’t come; he was sick. We were sitting here on the platform and the person to my right and I had a real conversation going, Dr. Tommie Workman, who taught out at Columbia College. I said, “Tommie, have you ever milked cows?” She said, “Yes, but I didn’t feel very dignified.” “Mom” Byrnes said, “What are you all talking about.” I said, “Milking cows, you ever milked cows?” She said, “No, I haven’t, Hal.” And somebody from the audience came and said, “Mrs. Byrnes, your microphone is live.”

You know the highlight of that day was we were going to present Willie Byrd, whom we adored, with a beautiful suit and a plaque. He came up and I said, “Willie, do you have anything that you would like to say.” He somewhat surprised me, and he said, “Yes, I do.” And these were his words. “I have asked my Heavenly Father to give me strength every day of my life so that I might take care of her, as long as I live.” And to that, he got a kiss on the cheek as he went over to her. No speaker could have been better than our Willie on that day. One of the students, Rick Baumgartner, student of about 1975, we were talking one day and I said, “Next time you are in Columbia and I am there at the same time, I would like to take you out to “Mom” Byrnes.” He said, “To meet her personally?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I will be there, you name the time.” He cut his classes at Furman that day we went out to see her. He sat there and he played the piano beautifully, and he sang to her Carolina Moon, and Let Me Call You Sweetheart, and she just loved it. I said, “Mom Byrnes, I am going to take Rick down here and show him the study.” All of his honorary degrees all over the walls from a man that never finished college and he used to tell us, “I was educated by degrees.” She began to get up with that walker, and I said, “Sit down, we are not going to steal anything.” She said, “Hal, I know you are not going to steal anything, but I want to go.” This was one of my most treasured moments. We got into the middle of the study and all of a sudden Rick, who seemingly was just overcome with the situation of where he was and with who he was talking, and he looked at her and he said, “I cannot believe that I am in your presence and your home and that I am talking to you.” And at that, they reached for each other, and I never saw a sweeter expression of love from a student to “Mom” Byrnes than that one.

She wrote me not long before she died, she said, “Hal, next time you are in Columbia, I want you to spend the night with me.” I wrote her back and said, “Never in my life, Mom Byrnes, have I had a woman to want me to spend the night with her that I had rather stay with than you.” It was almost like mail crossed. She sent it right back and underlined, “Come stay with us,” underlined. We got a really good, good laugh out of that.

I know you are saying, that is enough, and I was serious about it. I had the material, I just condensed, and condensed, and condensed. There were so many, many beautiful memories. Some humorous, and some so serious, but the time is up. Let me just read you. I wrote Mrs. Nixon, I always admired her. I thought she was a very, very special lady, and I asked her to come speak at our luncheon. She lived up to my expectation, because the letter I got back was brief, it was handwritten, and I loved her signature, and this is what she wrote: “Dear Mr. Norton, I am most proud to have been invited by you and the Byrnes Scholars to attend the annual luncheon honoring ‘Mom’ Byrnes. Knowing what a memorable gathering this will be, I am especially sorry that I will be unable to join you. At any rate, I shall be there in spirit as you pay tribute to a great lady whose precious friendship has been treasured over the years by our family. With deep appreciation and best wishes all, Sincerely, Pat Nixon.” And I thought, that is just who she is.

I was in London some time ago, some years back. Our guide told us: “If you’ll be early tomorrow – come a little early – I’ll take you to a very special place that we’re not supposed to take anyone.” We arrived early. Our group went out of London and came up on a little area that was a garden and a lady was hoeing in her garden. What we had gone to see was a grave right over here, Sir Winston Churchill. I’ve never seen in France where General DeGaulle chose to be buried but it was out somewhere in an unpretentious place. I’ve stood there and watched the burning flame, the eternal flame, at the grave of President Kennedy. As I thought about this great man and this great woman in our lives who didn’t choose to be buried in some very, very public place with an eternal flame burning, but buried just a few blocks away - he and “Mom” Byrnes and their chauffeur and family member, Willie Byrd. A very obscure little plot, no eternal flame, but he lit a flame in the hearts of hundreds and hundreds of young people that will never, never be extinguished. And with hearts of gratitude, I challenge you to let’s forever keep the flame burning. Thank you.

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