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Paula Harper Bethea – Accept The Torch

Following is the text of 1974 Scholar Paula Harper Bethea’s address at the Byrnes Scholars 34th annual luncheon, June 14, 1997.

To be able to be here with all of you again is wonderful for me. I have traveled a lot. You will hear how much in just a few moments, but it is always good to come home and I often say to people that Thomas Wilkes said you could not go home strictly because he was not from South Carolina. This is the most wonderful place to be and even with the rain my heart is filled with sunshine and love and joy and I am so glad to be able to share today with each of you.

In the mid seventies, as a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina, I addressed the annual luncheon of Byrnes Scholars here in Columbia. I stood before the assembled group with great pride, tremendous humility, a deeply grateful heart and a large case of nerves. The microphone failed, after only a few moments of my remarks and I was indeed grateful at that moment for years of voice lessons, strong vocal cords and a healthy and strong diaphragm. It is a moment which I relieve quite often, but today 21 years later I speak to you more grateful, more humble and still slightly apprehensive. Some of you know that 62 years ago I experienced the most deeply formative event of my life. I lost my only sister, the real light of my life and the wind beneath my wings to cancer, but in her life and her death, she shared her grace and her joy with us all. And on a particular day way when she was at home, my minister came to visit. And during the course of the conversation we began to talk about travel and sister said to my minister now you know that Paula doesn’t fly on an airplane. He looked at me and said “you don’t fly on an airplane?” I said no sir, I don’t. He said I do not understand and before I could speak, sister said, meet my baby sister, meet my baby sister, she has a lot of religion and very little faith. Well, I have a lot of faith today, a restored faith, not just in the good in very human being but what we are able to accomplish when we all work together. I have a now accumulated over the last 14months some 280,000 frequent flyer miles. I have visited all but eight states in the United States and I have shared heart thoughts will literally thousands of wonderful people, but today I am at home with my family and for whatever reason this is far more daunting and more special. No matter where we go in life, it is always vital and necessary to remember where we came from. Mom and Pop Byrnes always did and today I acknowledge with great love and thankfulness where I came from as well. I have just finished reading South Carolina’s Joseph Cardinal Bernadine’s book “The Gift of Peace”. It is moving and deeply emotional book about the darkness and the light which filled the last three years of Cardinal Bernadine’s life. It is the legacy he shared with the world and because of his book, it is ministry and a legacy of Governor Byrnes and we must continue to feel this responsibility and the obligation very keenly. It is our burden and indeed our supreme blessing.

In talking over this week wit Governor John West, he recounted that on a particular occasion, when Governor Byrnes was referred  to as a Statesman, he replied “please don’t refer to me as that, typically you are either dead or defeated politician when they give you Statesman status and I am neither”. His mind, his keen wit, his candor, his commitment, his determination and his generosity had an impact upon our world which is far reaching and deep.

He was public servant extraordinaire, a gentlemen of grand substance and great character. A truly proud American and a man of keen intellect with a huge heart.  James F. Byrnes was many things, but to those of us who have benefited and continue to benefit from their un paralleled generosity and love, he and Mrs. Byrnes, were and are, simply our heroes.
My daddy died on New Year’s Day of 1973 and at that moment I began to know the strange hand of fate and recognized quickly the goodness of people. Never did I awake to an alarm clock. Each morning of my life, for the seventeen years that gad him, my daddy woke me up; he told me that he loved me, that he was proud of me and that he was glad that I was his. He gave me unconditional love and acceptance and centered me as a human being. I was confident in the person I was at the time and sure of the person I yearned to become. Consequently, I grew up unafraid to venerable to my feelings or to yours and I truly believed that I could achieve anything if armed with the right tools and daddy had told me what the right tools were. A good education, a positive attitude, an impeccable character, a keen sense of responsibility and nurtured soul. After my daddy died I really wondered how would I gain all of my tools, but then out of darkness and into light Mom AND Pop Byrnes through a Foundation and new and extended family offered me the promise and the recourses for the education which has helped build the person who stands before you now. Education is the underpinning necessary for life’s skills, for self confidence and for the right tools. Few people can achieve the prominence and have the impact that Governor Byrnes did without formal education. No single thing done more to raise all Americans to a level playing field than has education. It is indeed the common denominator of progress. It is the world’s great equalizer. It is our best hope for a bright future and Governor and Mrs. Byrnes understood years and years ago that education really is a quest for excellence and has taken place in a global and shrinking world and must possess the same prospective. In reality, Governor Byrnes lived and helped mold our shrinking world as Secretary of State, his prospective was more clear than many. Since 1948 the Byrnes have given to us as a gift unmeasurable   and love unconditional. Mom and Pop Byrnes practiced random acts of kindness and for them it was far more than a bumper sticker on a car. I feel so incredibly blessed to be one of their beneficiaries.

Our life experiences, without doubt, help define us as human beings.  Certainly, this is the case with me and I am sure with all of you as well.  All of us here, whether directly or indirectly, have been defined by James Francis and Maude Bush Byrnes.  They understood well that the common thread which connects us all is the spirit of love and caring which motivates us each day to acheicve the impossible and even today they are testament to the fact that we need never abandon the heart to listen to the mind.  Govenor and Mrs. Byrnes shared a vision for a better future with us all and because they united us as family, they also made it clear that we are connected to one another as resources for one another.

I began my remarks on Tuesday; could not get anything down on paper, put my paper aside, picked my paper back up on Wednesday, still has a blank sheet of paper, decided to wait until Friday.  Sequestered myself in my office yesterday for three hours, walked out with one paragraph, went home last night after making a speech and thought that I would sit down and write my remarks.  How incredibly difficult to write heartfelt thoughts about two people who have made such a profound difference in your life.  I went to bed at 12:55 A.M. set my alarm clock for 4:00 A.M. and this morning at 4:00 A.M. on Hilton Head,  I wrote my remarks.  There are some of you in the room who know that this is not uncommon for me and I have found over the years when I feel something so very deeply it is better that I wait until the spirit is there and the words come easily, but in preparing for my remarks, I had an occasion to look back over some of the books about Governor and Mrs. Byrnes.  In his moving tribute to Governor Byrnes, at his funeral service, General Lucius Clay said “there are only a few, a very few in a world of many people who can by virtue of both character and achievement be called great, Justice Byrnes was such a man, but of the few who are recognized as great, there are an even smaller number who are both great and good, Justice Byrnes was also good.”   But, it was the Reverent Billy Graham who words speak to us so directly today speaking before and after General Clay’s eulogy, Reverend Graham said “he was a part of all of our lives and we pray that we may remember him by accepting the torch which he has passed.”

Today, as we recognize and celebrate the newest members of our family, as we renew friendships and enjoy blessed fellowship, as we are reminded of the selflessness and warmth and determination and love of Mom and Pop Byrnes, I ask each of you here to also accept the torch, to lead your life and therefore positively affect others, to be active and engaged, to give something of yourself, connect with something outside yourself, bigger than yourself and be determined to make a difference.  Real leadership requires a perfect balance of character and responsibility which will always set us apart, but leadership also requires real courage, for often, leadership leads us down some lonely and very bumpy roads.  Governor Byrnes knew this well and he always heeded the call.  The American spirit, throughout our history, has been one of independence, hard work and optimistic “can do” attitude and unwavering faith and a basic philosophy of giving something back of honest service to others.  These characteristic distinguish us and help define the heart and soul and the very fabric of what it means to be and American, a James F. Byrnes American, a blessed people.  I urge us all to heed the call and continue to respond in a way which will keep the Byrnes torch burning brightly which will be a testimony to the fact that our lives have been profoundly changed by two people whose hearts were large enough to adopt us all.  From solicitor to Congressman to U.S> Senator to the Supreme Court to the office of War Mobilization to Secretary of State to Assistant President to Governor of South Carolina, James F. Byrnes never gave up.  IN his goodness he achieved his greatness and he did it all with Bush Byrnes, his partner and his love at his side.  He sang, he exhibited warm wit and direct candor and in his own words he was a “live wire”.  But, with all of his accomplishments he called the creation of the Byrnes Scholars the most rewarding thing I never did in my life.

I have accomplished nothing alone in my 42 years, in fact,  I have been lucky and  fortunate to stand on the shoulders of some magnificent people, many of whom are in this room  today, but each day I stand firmly planted  on the shoulders of Mom and Pop Byrnes with the clear realization that being their scholar and their child is indeed a rare honor and a singular privilege.  They exhibited an uncommon grace and they shared with us all.  In my mind, this truly is grace so amazing; to share this day with all of you is wonderful.  I thank you from the bottom of my heart and I love you.

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