Let me begin with full disclosure: I was born in Greenville and even though my family moved away when I was 5 years old, I still consider Greenville my hometown. And, as with a first love, one’s hometown will always be something special. So it is with me and Greenville.
The Greenville of my childhood in the ‘50s is a very different place than Greenville today. My father was the minister at the Second Presbyterian Church and my earliest memories of both truancy and exploration were my sneaking away between Sunday school and church to explore the nearby Reedy River and the wilds of downtown Greenville.
My greatest challenges were to get back before church was over and not have my best Sunday clothes look like I had been playing in a muddy river. Since I was only 5 years old and couldn’t tell time, and usually I fell in the river, you can guess that I was rarely successful.
The Reedy River is today a metaphor for the transformation that has taken place. In the days of my youth, the river was essentially a muddy mess; often the water was different colors based on which textile mill had been dyeing what colors that shift — and it was always smelly.
Today, the cleaned-up river with a stunning new bridge and miles of green pathways has made the Main Street area as beautiful and livable as any in America. In fact, Main Street Greenville was recently named the first-place winner in the Best Place in America contest by the American Planning Association.
So how did this happen? Who was responsible for the transformation?
I found the answer, or at least part of it, last week at a baseball game of all places. The game was at the new ball park in the renovated West End where the city had come together at its annual Green Day Celebration to honor Hayne and Anna Kate Hipp.
The Hipps are an old-time Greenville family and in addition to starting Liberty Insurance, they have had a hand, often the guiding hand, in just about everything good that has happened in Greenville for the last 50 years — the new Liberty Bridge at Reedy Park, the Peace Center of Performing Arts, the Liberty Fellows program that grows new leaders for our state, the Governor’s School for the Arts and on and on it goes.
Past honorees of the Green Day Celebration were the men and women who have made Greenville what it is today: former Gov. Richard Riley, Governors’ School for the Arts founder Virginia Uldrick, realtor Dan Joyner, attorney environmentalist Tommy Wyche, government leaders such as former Mayor Max Heller and Lillian Block Fleming — among many others.
What made all of these people so special is their long-term, visionary leadership and personal commitment to the city. They are men and women, Democrats and Republicans, black and white, but they all put their shared vision of a better city first.
These people were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and do the hard nitty gritty work. Many of these people had great wealth and standing and could have used their power and influence to get others to do their bidding — but they didn’t. Hayne had been a member of the school board and in later life ran for county council; Tommy Wyche would go sit though countless hours of tedious zoning board meetings; Virginia Ulrich spent tens of thousands of hours volunteering in schools; Max Heller had served in virtually every community improvement and civic effort in the city for 30 years.
In talking with folks about these unique leaders and why Greenville was so successful, three things seem to have made all the difference.
First, was their commitment to education. The Greenville County School District today is the largest in the state with more than 72,000 students, and many would argue that it is the best in the state. They were one of the first to set up extensive business support groups for education; Furman University has been a real driver and from its earliest days as a radical idea, Greenville Tech has been doing amazing work. Recently the city created the Pete Hollis Sculpture Garden; Hollis was a legendary local school superintendent. I’ve never even heard of another community erecting a statue to a school superintendent!
Second, they have effectively dealt with issues of race. Like all other Southern and South Carolina towns and cities, they have struggled with the problems of the racial legacy of our history. In a much publicized incident, in 1959 Jackie Robinson was denied access to a waiting room at the racially segregated Greenville airport and it created massive bad publicity nationwide for the city. As a result, the city fathers took things in hand and began to make the tough changes. More recently, it was the Greenville Chamber of Commerce that was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Martin Luther King Day as a local holiday.
The third factor was Greenville’s openness to outsiders. We in the South can be very parochial and suspicious of outsiders; it seems to be in our nature. But Greenville was able raise above these limitations and reach out — literally around the world — to bring new global business and the new people that come with them, to the Upstate. Today, more than 150 international firms are located in Greenville County and a drive down Interstate 85 is a trip through the global marketplace of the 21st Century — BMW, Michelin, Robert Bosch Corp, Samsung and BASF to name just a few.
Is Greenville the promised land? Even as a proud native son I’d have to say “of course not.” Are there racial issues still unresolved, can the schools be improved, are there difficulties with immigration? The answers are obvious: Yes, yes and yes.
But, the essential fact is this: Greenville is working.
They have a history of civic leadership focused on getting personally involved, improving education, dealing forthrightly with racial issues and being open to new people and the wider world — all of these have been a huge part of Greenville’s success.
I’m proud of my hometown. And we in the rest of South Carolina can learn a lot from their example.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.