(upbeat music plays) (stirring brass music plays) - [Announcer] The South Carolina ETV Network presents Profile.
Each week, spotlighting the life and career of a distinguished South Carolinian.
Now here is your host, Tom Fowler.
- Good evening, I'm Tom Fowler.
Our guest on Profile tonight has been called the First Lady of South Carolina Education and founded the South Carolina Opportunity School 42 years ago.
Dr. Wil Lou Gray has continued her fight against illiteracy even past retirement as Director of the school in 1957.
With me to talk with Dr. Wil Lou Gray is June Licata.
But first, a film look at the life and career of South Carolina's Wil Lou Gray.
- [Narrator] The life of Wil Lou Gray is proof that one life can make a big difference in society.
She's 90 years old now, but still is crusading against her old foe, illiteracy, in a fight begun over 50 years ago in 1918.
Miss Wil Lou was born in Laurens County in 1883, graduated from a small Laurens high school one year before the turn of the century, and after study at Columbia College, took a master's degree in political science from Columbia University in New York City.
She was appointed to the Second State Illiteracy Commission in 1918 and acted as field secretary, traveling the state, setting up adult schools.
Commission members served for years without expense money.
In 1920, an all-day school for adults became Miss Wil Lou's most beloved dream, an answer to the need of adults that could not read.
One year later, Miss Wil Lou Gray founded the first summer boarding school for women at the borough DAR school in Tamassee, near Walhalla.
The students came from all over the state, some by wagon.
The school was the only one of its kind in the nation, and the Opportunity School then was grounded mostly by faith and little by money.
The day began at 6:30, and from 9:00 to 12:00, regular classes were held.
For tuition, some students brought food from the country.
The total cost of the first school to the state of South Carolina was $100 paid to one teacher.
Tamassee showed what could be done for the unlettered working girl.
At that time, thousands of pupils from the coastal plains to the Piedmont had little chance of advancing because they never reached high school.
The next summer, the Opportunity School was held at Lander College for women over 16 who had not completed past the fifth grade.
Two students were from towns, nine from the country and 79 from cotton mills.
With a demand for summer school for men, Miss Wil Lou helped direct the Men's Opportunity School at Erskine College in August, 1923.
The summer group at Erskine learned the three Rs and measured their success also in terms of earning more money for their families.
With hope for advancement, students in both schools attended classes all morning in the August heat, and teachers said they often instructed until bedtime.
Until 1947, the Opportunity School was held in borrowed colleges, Lander, Erskine, Wofford, Winthrop, and Clemson.
In 1946, the General Assembly appropriated $65,000 for a permanent school in an abandoned army hospital near the present Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
So after a quarter century, Wil Lou Gray won her fight for a permanent home and year-round session for the Opportunity School instead of a brief summer term of only four weeks.
213 students attended that first permanent Opportunity School.
And since then, an average of over 30 students a year have received a high school diploma.
Miss Wil Lou retired officially in August, 1957 and planned to spend her time traveling.
But her first trip was to Washington D.C. and a meeting with the Director of Senior Citizens of America.
Harry Bryan, Director of the South Carolina Commission on the Aging, talked about Dr. Gray's next achievement.
- Well, when you think of Dr. Wil Lou Gray, it's hard to know where to begin because she has done so much but in this particular field of aging, she led the way.
She was the leader of a group of individuals back in the '50s, before the field of aging became popular, who worked to develop information for the first White House Conference on Aging and formed a nucleus of individuals that led to the creation of the South Carolina Commission on Aging.
She was head of an organization in South Carolina called the South Carolina Council of Senior Citizens and worked hard to develop many programs for older people including the program that's so successful now, the annual day at the State Fair for senior citizens.
This was Dr. Wil Lou Gray's contribution.
And the amazing thing I think about Dr. Gray and what makes her so admirable is that at the age of 90, she is continuing to give leadership to many fine causes for other people who are less fortunate than herself.
Not only the elderly, but still continuing to make contributions to the young people at the Opportunity School and to others as she has always done throughout her life.
When I think of Dr. Gray, I think of the quotation from the philosopher Amiel, who said, "To know how to grow old is a master-work of wisdom and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."
I think Dr. Gray fits that to a T because she has certainly shown all of us how to live and we can well use her as a model for our own lives.
- [Narrator] Senator Isadore Lourie of Columbia is a longtime friend of Miss Wil Lou and a strong advocate of programs for senior citizens.
- I had admired the work of Dr. Wil Lou Gray for many years.
However, I really did not have an opportunity to meet her and really get to know her until 1964, when I was running for the state legislature.
I went by one afternoon to visit with her 'cause I'd read so much about the work and efforts that she had done for so many South Carolinians.
I had intended my visit to be a short one, but Dr. Gray is such a interesting and enchanting person that it was a most pleasant long afternoon that I spent with her.
It was through her and from her inspiration that I initially became interested in the problems of South Carolina's senior citizens.
At that time, Dr. Gray and some of her colleagues were pushing for legislation to establish a state agency to be concerned with the problems of South Carolina's elderly.
We were one of the few states in the nation in 1964 that did not have such an agency.
Dr. Gray persuaded me and other members of the legislature that we needed this type of agency, who had as its sole responsibility the concerns and needs of South Carolina's senior citizens.
And because of her great guidance and because of her persuasion, we were able to pass that legislation in the legislature to establish the South Carolina Commission on Aging, which has brought so many programs and projects into South Carolina to help our senior citizens.
But certainly her work has not been limited to senior citizens.
She's a woman of great compassion for all human beings.
She really has a feel for the needs of all South Carolinians.
Her fight against illiteracy is one that all South Carolinians can be grateful for.
She saw many, many years ago, before a number of our other leaders saw, that it was impossible for South Carolina to really move upward, to really climb the ladder that we wanted to to get a decent standard of living for all South Carolinians as long as we were strangled by the problems of illiteracy and poverty.
And she knew that we must conquer those problems if we were to move our state ahead.
And therefore, she provided great leadership in attacking the problems of illiteracy and trying to make a better standard of life for all South Carolinians.
I for one think it's been one of my rare opportunities in my public life to have been able to share with her so many of the experiences in government and to have been inspired by her in the types of legislation which would help every South Carolinian, regardless of which walk of life they come from.
And I will always be grateful to her, as I think every South Carolinian should be, for what she has done for our state.
She has truly left a heritage to South Carolina, a heritage that all of us can cherish for many, many years.
- [Narrator] A month ago, alumni and friends of the Opportunity School held the 13th Annual Founders' Day celebration to honor Miss Wil Lou Gray, the lady whose efforts helped spearhead South Carolina's climb back from history.
The 90 year old First Lady of South Carolina education was honored with the presentation of a charter from the Wil Lou Gray International Reading Association and testimonials from three former students.
The South Carolina Opportunity School has become a Cinderella story since Wil Lou Gray began the first session in 1921.
The present campus stretches over 100 acres of wooded land near the Columbia Airport.
When Dr. Gray and her staff moved in during 1947, the grounds were dotted with 218 old wartime troop buildings.
Only one old building now remains, and 12 distinctive, new buildings stand in place, part of the school's $3 million physical plant.
The annual budget now tops $1 million.
- Because Dr. Gray has meant so many different things to so many different people, the Opportunity School itself is Dr. Gray.
Dr. Gray is the Opportunity School.
The Opportunity School is a result of her thinking and of her making.
She desired for people who had never had an opportunity to get away from home, to experience a campus life, she desired for these people the experience of a campus life and thus she came up with the idea of the Opportunity School.
Now through this period of almost 53 years, more than 22,000 people have attended the Opportunity School.
And of course they have very directly come under her influence.
They have, most of 'em have been made to desire to be better people, to live more meaningful lives.
Most of 'em came from very disadvantaged circumstances.
Most of 'em had a very meager existence.
This is the Opportunity School has perhaps caused them to be able to earn more than just a meager existence.
But it's all, has also helped them to live more meaningful lives, even on a small income.
One day, a lady came to the Opportunity School, said that she wished to see the lady who changed her husband's insides.
She went on to say that since her husband had attended the Opportunity School, he had been much more thoughtful of her, more considerate he'd been a much better husband.
Now there are hundreds of thousands of people in South Carolina who need this same experience that this man had.
And it is Dr. Gray's desire that there be a trust fund established, the income from which could be used to help finance the expenses of these people at the Opportunity School.
Many of these people have families, they have financial responsibilities.
And it's Dr. Gray's idea that if a trust fund could be established to help support these people here, that they would leave their work and come here and receive these same experiences that this man had.
And we think that the Opportunity School has the things that these people need, even though the facilities have changed, the methods have changed, the philosophy is very much the same that it was when Dr. Gray was here.
- [Narrator] The average age of the Opportunity School student now is 18, and the average stay in the dormitories is three months, with some spending over a year and others, just a few days.
The cost to boarding students is $750 a year, a step up from the first tuition of $5, but covered by aid or scholarships in most cases.
Peggy Halseden, a 21 year old from Hemingway, hopes to be a commercial artist and has produced ads for the Florence Morning News.
Peggy started the Opportunity School last winter and was part of the school's special summer program.
Dr. Gray's first school near Walhalla 52 years ago had one paid teacher.
Now the Opportunity School has 17 full-time teachers and a student-teacher ratio of about one to 12, a better ratio than most public schools in the state, and a help in the time-consuming task of individual instruction.
Many Opportunity School students are dropouts, their disenchantment with high school partially due to problems of low achievement, and that due in some cases to poor reading ability.
The Reading Lab uses slide and cassette machines with coordinated manuals to improve reading ability.
During Founders' Day several weeks ago, Dr. Wil Lou Gray said, "People have given me too much credit for beginning the Opportunity School and not enough to the people who supported us."
But the Opportunity School clearly is the result of Miss Wil Lou Gray's tireless efforts, begun on dusty, rural roads over 60 years ago, efforts which might call for rephrasing the Opportunity School's Brick Road sign.
That sign says, Why Stop Learning?
It could say in Miss Gray's case, Why Stop Creating?
- Look at the career of South Carolina's Wil Lou Gray.
Welcome to Profile, Miss Gray.
I guess the first question I'm interested in is what was it like so many years ago, before the Opportunity School had its permanent home, before you even had the borrowed colleges, back around World War I?
What was it like?
How bad was the problem of illiteracy in the state?
- Well, one person out of every four couldn't write his name.
I came back to South Carolina because of illiteracy.
The Illiteracy Commission was established at the request of the State Federation of Women's Clubs, and they asked Governor Manning to establish the commission.
He accepted that challenge, but it took him two years to get people to be willing to serve on the commission.
They were just afraid of it, or they just didn't want to do it.
They felt at that time when I talked to the people that these people who were illiterate just didn't wanna know.
They never had a chance to know.
They felt that they were, just couldn't learn.
We know people can learn.
They felt that they didn't want to learn.
We know that's not true.
We'd never given them a opportunity.
And so our first challenge was to kind of change the idea or the philosophy of the people, they didn't want to learn, they couldn't learn, they were too old to learn.
- Well, why didn't most of these people have a chance to go to school?
- Well, we just didn't have the schools, and the ones we had, I remember I started out in a one-teacher school.
I enrolled 56 pupils, I think, that year we started.
There wasn't a thing in the world, in the house to tell you that it was a school.
We had a great big, old, pot-bellied stove.
We had some boards for blackboards, and all the summer before I went out there to teach, the hogs had rested, had a sleeping place.
And the school term was at that time just about five months in the year.
You can imagine how little you learn in five months when you came out of a home that didn't have a magazine, didn't have a book.
People were so poor at that time.
You young people in this age now have no idea how poor the people were.
I, I've kind of, I tried to find out the average income at that time but I couldn't.
We finally decided it probably was $100 a year of the average person.
- Miss Wil Lou, we know that books have played a very important part in your role and are amongst your most treasured possessions.
But back in Tamassee at 1921, at one of your first schools, how did you use these books to teach students that had never read or seen books before?
- Well, we tried to teach.
We tried to have, we did have an unusually good teachers up there.
In fact, one of 'em was a Columbia University trained person and she was dedicated to her work.
Another one was some, we paid her $100.
That was all the state put in it.
And then we, she said.
I had no idea what we were getting into, frankly.
I'll tell you the truth.
My brother had given me when he said, "What?
Where are you gonna get the money for these poor people?"
I said, "Well, I was expecting you to give me a barrel of flour."
He was a flour salesman.
So he did, we got that.
And then the people in the community gave us all the vegetables we could eat, several people gave us $10.
I remember just before I got on the train, start, left my home, a letter came in from Miss Julia Seldon, who'd been very much interested in this program, really interested before I was, in Spartanburg.
I keep saying that I've gotten far too much credit for what was done.
Other people had thought about it.
And this $10, I said, "All right, I'll use for, to get, pay somebody to be the cook."
We were just paying people at that time $2 and a half a week.
That was the salary of lots of cooks.
But when I got on the train to go up there it happened to be I changed cars in Donalds, Donalds.
And two girls when I got on were on there going to the school.
And you might be interested in their stories.
I don't know whether you are or not.
But anyway, they came to talk to, they spotted me.
Their night school teacher had told them about it, about the Opportunity School and was sending them there.
And the requirements was nobody could come who had gone further than fifth grade.
And they, they were well dressed.
And I, I thought, "Oh my, those girls are college girls," when they first came up to speak to me.
Then after we talked a little while, they told me they were going there.
I didn't know what to do because I was satisfied they were higher than fifth grade girls, fifth grade level.
So I said, "But girls, this school wasn't for girls like you.
They were for people who hadn't been to school and couldn't read and write."
And the girls said to me, "Well Miss Wil Lou, if you knew how often I've stood at a mill window and looked out and seen the boys and girls going, children going to school, you'll not send me back."
But my state superintendent was the kind of man, the marvelous person, he let me makes the rules but when I made 'em, I had to stick to them.
But the trouble was in this job, you can't do that.
And so I thought, "Well, what can I do?"
And all at once God gave me a thought, said, "Give 'em an examination."
I said, "Did you ever study history?"
"Did you ever study geography?"
I said, "Oh, that's all right, you under the fifth grade."
So they went and they made marvelous pupils, both of them.
- Miss Wil Lou, did you know back then when you were on that train, starting that first school that you would make your life's work fighting illiteracy?
- I had no idea.
And I'm still fighting it because not long ago I was looking over some old cards.
And one I was particularly interested in was a report of a research in, made by a teacher, a Columbia College teacher of mine in which it was on determinisms in education.
They made a study of the education in every state in the United States.
And do you know, they had 10 factors seeing what made a good citizen.
I'm not gonna take time to discuss the factors but they were all very necessary in good citizenship.
And do you know where we fell in?
We were 44th in the 48 states of the Union.
And do you know if we take that same test today, now that was done in '19 and '20.
Based on that we'd be about 44th because we, the Southeastern states, still you don't have any trouble finding out where we are, education.
You don't have to look up, look up, you just look down.
And we still, with one exception, we've made marvelous progress.
I wanna congratulate the people in South Carolina for what they've done.
And I think the modern school is an excellent school.
I'm so glad to see them taking the pupils out of the school, realizing that we have, we are educated in school and out of school.
And we have about come to the conclusion that everybody can't take this curriculum that the South Carolina for years and years and years had, was just to help get people in college.
And everybody can't go to college and don't ought to go to college.
They ought to be taught the things in which they are interested.
And many people have a great difficulty in learning to read.
But I'm gonna say I've worked with thousands of pupils now, over that 20,000, but they just haven't had a chance.
We have not paid our teachers adequately.
And therefore, we are still down at the bottom.
The only thing that we really have shown that really fantastic change is in money.
I started out teaching for $245 a year.
- Miss Wil Lou, the average age at the Opportunity School today is 18.
But is there still a problem with adults in this state that can't read?
I know it's not as serious as it was when you started.
- It's not as serious but there is still a great problem.
I have in my home, there's the nicest Black person who can't read.
We going to try to teach her But you'd be surprised how many people can't read.
I don't believe that the average reading ability of South Carolinians, now I'm guessing this, is more than fifth grade.
And I declare if you just had fifth grade, you can't read, really read intelligently.
- Miss Wil Lou, prior to 1940 the land that the Opportunity School is now located on was owned by the federal government.
How did you get this land?
- Well, when you see, we lived in borrowed homes always.
The church, the schools were just marvelous, the colleges.
I remember when I first went to Lancaster, appeared before the Board of Education there asking for some $300 I believe it was I wanted, because the state would not pay anybody connected with the school except the teachers.
It had to be teachers.
So we did need a nurse and we needed a house mother, and so I asked them to give the, give us, the Board of Education of the South Carolina Methodist Church and the Baptist churches to give us $300.
And I remember when, and I wanted a place to have the school in, and then $300.
And I appeared before this Board of Education for the Methodist Church and it happened to be at Lancaster.
And after I had made my little speech, and I'd hoped it would go over, a minute or two and nobody said anything.
And I'd kinda expected my friend, President of Wofford College, to say, "You can come to Wofford."
But he didn't speak up.
But Mr., Dr. Wilson, who was President of Lander College said Lander College was organized to meet the needs of girls through a different group.
But her doors stand open.
- Miss Gray?
- [Dr. Wil Lou Gray] And that's the way we went.
- I'm sorry, our time has run out.
Our thanks to June Licata and to our guest, South Carolina's Dr. Wil Lou Gray.
Next week on Profile, meet Senator Rembert Dennis, veteran of the State Senate and Chairman of the Finance Committee.
(upbeat music plays) I'm Tom Fowler, goodnight.
(upbeat music continues)