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‘Pop’ Byrnes had his own head start program

Following is the text of remarks by Ralph Gregory to the Byrnes Scholars at their 26th annual luncheon, June 10, 1989, in Columbia, S.C. Mr. Gregory was introduced by Charles Wall, 1979 Scholar and President of the Byrnes Scholars.

Thank you, Charles, for that kind introduction. And for the invitation to speak to this group today. I consider it one of the great honors in my life.

When Charles asked me to speak to the group several months ago, I suggested to him that he could certainly find a better-know speaker as well as a better-performing speaker. For there have certainly been some very notable speakers in the many years that Byrnes Scholars have been meeting each June for these luncheons. Judge Donald Russell, Senator Thurmond, General Clay, General Clark, several governors and many successful business and political leaders. And, of course, our own distinguishing Judge Bobby Mallard at last year’s luncheon.

That’s a pretty imposing company for a country boy like me.

But Charles’ invitation put the assignment in a perspective that I feel very comfortable with. Charles said, “Just tell the group what your personal association with Mr. and Mrs. Byrnes has meant to you.”

So that is what I will try to do. Share some recollections of the years when we did have the good fortune to know and to seek the advice of and learn from the Byrnes.  And perhaps I can pass on to you some of the important lessons that I learned from Mr. Byrnes that have been very important in my life and perhaps can make some difference in yours.

But, let me warn you up front, I sometimes get pretty emotional when I remember and talk about these things, so bear with me if this happens.

Before I start, let me first congratulate all of you who are at a new threshold in your lives.

To all you 1989 graduates, congratulations on a job well done. You have prepared yourselves for a life’s journey that I hope will be rewarding to you in both personal satisfaction as well as financially. You leave behind your college experiences with distinguished and proud records that are a credit to the Byrnes name. We wish you well as you move into your careers.

To all the new Scholars who are beginning your college careers, we all say congratulations. And welcome to a new family. For this is what this organization can be for you. You will share a very special heritage. One that will mean a great deal more to you in the years ahead than just an opportunity to go to college and earn a degree.

One of the advantages of being older, and there should be some benefits of getting older, is the opportunity that I had to come along as one of the original Byrnes Scholars. Because of that, I enjoyed the opportunity of personally sharing the wisdom, the caring spirit and fellowship of Mr. and Mrs. Byrnes.

I grew up in Aiken. Like all of you, I was a pretty good student. I was active in student activities. I was a good college prospect with one small exception: I didn’t have the money to go to college. Or, as I later came to realize, not enough confidence to recognize that if I wanted to go badly enough, I could. I needed a little boost or some kick in the pants to get me started. I had pretty much resolved myself to looking around for a job in Aiken.

Now, how many of you have had your head tell you one thing, but your heart kept telling you another? Your head tells you that you can’t do something, or you have to do something, but your heart won’t quite buy it.  Well, that’s where I was in the spring of 1950. My head told me there was no way I could go to college, but my heart kept sending messages to my brain that put me in college.

Then one day my high school principal told me that I had been awarded a scholarship by the James F. Byrnes Foundation. My reaction was, “Who, me?” And among the next many thoughts there was one that said, “Why me?” And another that asked, “What do I have to do to earn it? And to keep it?” For, although everybody knew who James F. Byrnes was, not many had heard about the Foundation at that time. Those are probably some of the same thoughts that most of you may have experienced at some point when you were awarded your scholarship.

In June we were invited to the Byrnes home in Spartanburg to meet Mr. Byrnes. Here was South Carolina’s most famous citizen. A man who spent his long and distinguished career in Washington and in headlines around the world as a Congressman, Senator, Supreme Court Justice, as Assistant President in World War II when he was credited with helping mobilize this country for war. Then later, he helped mobilize the world for peace as Secretary of State and had participated in important conferences at Yalta and Potsdam.

Here was a man who had met and worked with almost every famous world figure of the twentieth century: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin. Those names are prominent in the history of the era.

Can you image the fear and anxiety that this young, skinny kid felt when he thought about having to go and talk to this larger than life man? Heck, I’d only been to Columbia about twice and never as far away as Spartanburg. I wondered whether college was all that important after all. Working at Winn-Dixie didn’t sound as bad as all that. But, obviously, I went. We found the house. My uncle, who drove me up, dropped me off and I trudged forward very slowly. Dreading it.

Only to be met by the warmest people I had ever known. Hey, they knew who I was without even asking. They made me feel like the most important person in the world. From Willie Byrd, the Byrnes chauffer, to Miss Cassie Connor, to Mr. Byrnes himself, there was genuine warmth and recognition that soon put me at ease.

That was the beginning of experiences and a lesson in caring about people that has been an important part of my life ever since.

Mr. Byrnes was elected Governor, moved to the Governor’s Mansion in Columbia, and so did the Scholars. Governor and Mrs. Byrnes brought the group to the mansion for our June get-together. In later years we went to the Isle of Palms where we shared the Byrnes’ beach home. Every time the family grew and every time, every person received the same warm recognition and personal interest.

Mr. and Mrs. Byrnes’ involvement was always much more than just providing funds for the scholarships. They took a keen interest in the student’s progress, both at school and in their personal lives. They welcomed visits by the Scholars for social reasons as well as by those who were looking for advice or comfort in times of stress or for assistance in solving problems.  And later to share in their plans for marriage and when each one began their own families, the babies became “grandchildren.”

I personally found that the Byrnes name was one that gave me a head start on several occasions. In fact, we hear about the head start program today. Mr. Byrnes had his own head start program 30 years earlier.

After graduation from Carolina’ and service in the Army, I went to Atlanta as a writer with the Atlanta Constitution. After a couple of years I decided to seek a more lucrative job. One of my interviews was with a pharmaceutical company. The position was as a medical service representative, sometimes known as detail man.

The man doing the interviewing was an Irishman named Russell Flynn. He was a real salesman, with a world of personality and friendly line of blarney. Now, I never was a real conversationalist, as I’m sure my wife and family can tell you. I’m sure Mr. Flynn was looking for an outgoing sales type because the job was calling on doctors and hospitals to get them to prescribe and use the pharmaceutical products of the company.

The interview was going very poorly for me and I’m sure Mr. Flynn was finding very little in my corner that would cause him to hire me for the job. But he was trying to keep the interview going and as he continued to scan my resume he saw that I had attended school with a James F. Byrnes Foundation Scholarship and had listed Mr. Byrnes as a reference. Mr. Flyn asked me, “Is this The James F. Byrnes – Secretary of the State and so forth?” I said, “Yes,” and he spent the next ten minutes asking about my relationship with Mr. Byrnes and about the criteria for the scholarship.

To make a long story short, he hired me for the job and later told me that Byrnes reference and the scholarship idea was the reason.

Another example of the Byrnes influence on my career: About five years later I decided that it was time to come home to South Carolina. I heard that the South Carolina State Chamber of Commerce was looking for a Director of Public Relations and I came to Columbia to interview for the job. Once again the Byrnes reference helped me get the job offer. Before accepting, however, I went to talk it over with Mr. Byrnes in his office a block or so away.

He never tried to tell you what to do. He spent the time discussing the organization and the people who were involved in it. He gave me the pros and the cons. I ended up taking the job and worked with the Chamber for five years. That job eventually led me into the agency business.

So, the Byrnes influence has been important – in opening doors, in providing advice and making decisions. But there have been more important benefits and lessons learned that I want to share with you today. They are things that I learned from Mr. and Mrs. Byrnes.

There were no rules, per se, that went with the Byrnes scholarship; only one stipulation: “Never do anything that will bring dishonor to the Byrnes Foundation or Scholars.” There were some principles for living that I learned through the association with Mr. Byrnes that I try to practice. They were beliefs that he shared in an off-hand way during our conversations, but more importantly in the way that he conducted his relationships with everyone that he came in contact with.

They can be of particular benefit to those of you about to embark on a new stage in your career. So, to you new Scholars and to you new graduates in particular, let me share with you four principles that I believe are part of the Byrnes heritage. They’re pretty simple, but that’s the kind of character that Mr. Byrnes had and the kind of conduct that he appreciated in others. They’re not his rules. They are principles by which he lived and they are a part of your heritage. Or should be.

First of all, be fair. The idea that you can get away with something was not a part of the Byrnes legacy. You might recognize it better as the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Mr. Byrnes practiced it and, though he didn’t preach it to others, he imparted it in a manner that most people picked up on. Be fair – in your dealings in business, with your associates or employees, with your spouses, with your family, with your children.

The second principle is closely related to the first. Be honest. Much like the first one, there are no shortcuts to honesty or any compromises. In the short term you will be tempted to take a questionable route in business or in other pursuits. Don’t fall for it. In the long run, the honest way will be the best way.

The third principle that Mr. Byrnes represented was this – be respectful of your fellow man. Not just the rich and famous, but every person deserves your respect and deserves to be treated as an equal. This man walked with the great leaders of his time. He was a friend of millionaires like Bernard Baruch. Yet he had the uncommon touch of making young people with no money and limited prospects feel important. He respected everyone from the chauffer to the executive and his ability to relate to them didn’t vary.

That to me was an important lesson. And I’ve been rewarded many times over by trying to practice it. I’ve shared some wonderful experiences in my travels by taking an interest in the lives of people from all walks of life. You’ll be amazed at the great insights you will gain from those genuine people who make up the majority of this world.

Finally, the most important principle that I believe represented Mr. Byrnes approach to life. Do the best you can do. Whatever you do, do it the best you can. There were no rules. There were no demands for a specific level of performance by Mr. Byrnes. His credo was – do the best you can do. What follows that is almost automatic and guaranteed; you’ll end up doing a lot more than you ever dreamed you could.

You’ll also find that you will want to make the world around you a little better for others. That, in my judgment, is the reason that you find so many Byrnes Scholars walking around here today. They are making an impact on the lives of many people, just as Mr. Byrnes did when he decided to develop the Foundation.

Mr. Byrnes established the Foundation to share what he had been fortunate enough to gain in life. He had respect for young people who needed a little help and who would do the best that they can do. He had no patience for those who did not try.

A pretty basic and simple approach to living. Be fair. Be honest. Respect your fellow man. Do the best that you can do.

Today I am president and a principal owner of South Carolina’s third largest advertising agency. I’ve had an opportunity to travel in 46 of our states. I’ve had an opportunity to meet some of the most successful business leaders in this country and in eight foreign countries.

When I walking up that path to the Byrnes home in 1950, I never dreamed that could be a possibility. So, if you get the idea that my life has been influenced be Mom and Pop Byrnes, then you catch on pretty fast. I have four beautiful daughters, four handsome stepsons and one beautiful wife and a proud mother. Plus a career that has been very satisfying.

I wish that all of you had had the opportunity to have known the Byrnes. The rewards were many, beyond the scholarship. But, even though you did not have that chance, you should be very proud of your selection as a Byrnes Scholar. You are part of a proud heritage that has produced an outstanding list of great teachers, great preachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, business leaders, great mothers and fathers.

Carry that heritage with you proudly. I wish you well in everything you do. And I thank you for the very great honor of sharing these thoughts with you.

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