Pete Hollis' contributions to education made him a hero

10 people downtown statues historic people


Pete Hollis' story should inspire the "C" students of the world -- or at least console their parents.

Lawrence Peter Hollis was poorly prepared academically for the rigors of the University of South Carolina when he entered in 1901. The farm boy from Chester County did so miserably in his freshman year that the university president gently suggested that he leave before he flunked out.

But since he had made friends at the school and was already active in student organizations, the 18-year-old decided to study harder and managed to pass most of his courses. (He had clearly mastered social skills.) As a junior, he was elected president of the Literary Club, and in his senior year he headed the university's fledgling YMCA.

In the spring of 1905, just before graduation, I.E. Unger, the head of the YMCA at Monaghan Mill in Greenville, came to Columbia looking for an assistant director for the mill's industrial YMCA, the first in the state. After an extensive interview, Unger offered him the position with a salary of $40 a month. (That's about $800 today.)

So L.P. Hollis came to Greenville. And here he stayed for the rest of his life, beloved by mill workers and school children, respected by community leaders, honored by national educational groups.

His initial accomplishments came fast. Unger unexpectedly resigned five months after Hollis arrived, and the young assistant director, who had already proven his worth to company management, was named director.

The national YMCA, however, hesitated about allowing so important a position to a newly-minted college graduate, and agreed to confirm the appointment only on the condition that Hollis attend YMCA training sessions at Lake George, N.Y., during the next few summers.

There he was introduced to the newly invented game of basketball, to soccer and to Lord Robert Baden-Powell, who had begun the scouting movement in England. Hollis purchased a basketball in New York City on his way home and introduced that sport, soccer and Boy Scouting to "the young men who have good red blood in their veins" at Monaghan and to South Carolina.

He was also responsible for getting and retaining new workers. He sent a recruiter into the coves and "hollers" of the Appalachians, "and we brought down a lot of people from the mountains." Then his job was to keep them contented. When he told Monaghan President Thomas Parker that a family of 13 had arrived, the mill president said, "See if you can make them happy. We can get some good spinners out of these kids if we could get them to stay here." So he took the mother to buy difficult-to-move furniture and later an organ. And he arranged for a New York movie producer to make a film about the problems of relocation; its climax showed careless movers allowing an organ to drop off the top of a wagon. Because recreation programs encouraged worker loyalty, he built a baseball field and gymnasium.

But Hollis did far more than introduce games and recruit employees. By 1907 he had made the Monaghan YMCA the center of the community, reporting that the 1,600 mill village residents had made 47,168 individual visits that year. He scheduled adult education classes, basketball, bowling, pool, skating, volleyball and cross country competitions; a "country circus" at Christmas, Ramblers' Club outings, gymnastic exhibitions, biweekly moving pictures, Bible study, dramatics, a Textile Club and health talks.

There's little wonder that Parker made him director of social welfare activities for Parker Cotton Mills Co. in 1911 or, when it failed, that he was appointed head of Victor-Monaghan's elementary schools. But in 1923, when the Parker School District was formed by executives from all of Greenville's mills, even he was surprised when he was named superintendent of the huge new district, which reached from Mills Mill on the east to Duncan Chapel on the western side of Greenville.

While he had an amazing record at Monaghan, his years at Parker made him a Greenville hero. He made the Parker District and its high school a model program, stressing applied education. At Parker High, he began the first organized student government in the state, Greenville's first science fair, encouraged a school newspaper, and offered vocational courses in textiles, cosmetology, secretarial science and auto mechanics. Its band and chorus (Hollis loved music) were famous.

The Parker District became a world unto itself with Pete Hollis as its presiding genius. When "School and Society" Magazine featured it in 1935, in an article later condensed in "Reader's Digest" titled "Mill Town Miracle," he became nationally known. His fame was perpetuated when he was the only Southerner named one of America's most distinguished educators in 1949.

He made nearly as strong an impact on Greenville as he did on the surrounding communities, starting the Singing Christmas Tree, encouraging the building of the Phillis Wheatley Center, creating a "People's College" for adult education, working for peaceful integration.

Before he died in 1978, he had been awarded two honorary doctoral degrees. Not bad for a "C" student!

Judith Bainbridge