TANYA ACKERMAN / Staff
When Virginia Lee Uldrick talks about he inspiring elements of her life, names of former teachers pervade the memories.
Uldrick -- singer, conductor and award-winning educator -- believes that through divine providence, excellent teachers have filled her life.
Among the best was her late son, Michael.
Uldrick, president of the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, says the courage her son showed in a battle with cancer "was probably the greatest lesson I've ever learned in life."
Michael Uldrick lived only 17 years but exhibited what Uldrick calls "a depth of courage I never knew." His loss in 1971 deepened her conviction to help students find their potential.
"I knew I had to spend my life with young people," Uldrick says, "and I had to give them everything within me."
That has been especially true of those from less privileged backgrounds.
"She's had a way of finding young people from dire situations, who were willing to work hard, and getting others to sponsor their education," says former Greenville County School Superintendent J. Floyd Hall. "There are a lot of kids from Greenville who had opportunities they wouldn't have had if it weren't for Virginia Uldrick. I think the entire state owes her a debt of gratitude."
As director of the Fine Arts Center for the School District of Greenville County and at the Governor's School, Uldrick made a routine of helping underprivileged students secure financial aid, tutoring, counseling and college scholarships.
"I could not bear the pain of knowing we give great support to children gifted academically, but the gifted arts students had only what they could afford privately," Uldrick says, describing a dilemma she confronted long ago. "I felt there were very wonderful gifts being ignored."
For many youngsters, Uldrick's life has forever changed that. She worked more than 20 years as artistic and choral director for the "Singing Christmas Tree."
She was later the organizing principal for the Fine Arts Center, a visual and performing arts high school. She was the first director of the Roper Mountain Science Center and played a major role as the RMSC acquired its first major gift.
Another 20-plus years have been devoted to the Governor's School, which prospers today as a legacy of her vision, passion and persistence.
Hall is among those who credit Uldrick as the No. 1 reason for the success of those programs.
"People were willing to help because they had confidence in her ability," says Hall, who asked Uldrick to serve as director of the Roper Mountain Center and the Fine Arts Center at the same time. "And on top of that, she's tenacious -- she never gives up. She never stops working on a project until it's complete.
"We would never have started the Fine Arts Center without her ability to get it going," Hall says. "And few people realize she was involved in the Roper Mountain Science Center, but we made her the first director, because we knew she could get things moving."
Hall says the appointment of Uldrick as president of the Governor's School, which she nurtured as a summer program for 19 years before its doors opened with a full-time curriculum in 1999, was an easy decision. Gov. Dick Riley vowed to Hall that he'd do everything he could to make the school a reality -- if Hall promised that Uldrick would lead it.
"I told him, 'You've got a deal,' " Hall says, chuckling at the ease of the decision. "Virginia Uldrick is one of the finest individuals I've ever known."
To Uldrick, the ultimate projects are the students.
"We've got some remarkable, wonderful children here," Uldrick says of the 230 students at the Governor's school. "They're a joy to be around."
Uldrick has worn that same outlook since stepping off the Furman campus and into the classroom in 1950.
"I saw these young people looking at me like I was telling them something they really wanted to know," Uldrick says of her first glimpse of teaching. "And something just clicked. I knew the classroom was going to be my stage."
That connection, and marriage to Marion Uldrick, overshadowed dreams of an opera career. Instead, she poured herself into education and her family.
"As a kid, I remember waking up at 3 a.m. and going to the dining room and seeing her working on a school project," says daughter Lisa Parris. "Ever since I can remember, she's worked all day and then brought work home in the evenings. She still does."
Uldrick steps away from it only long enough for an occasional trip to Hilton Head for the rest and recuperation she considers "important in restoring one's soul and one's thinking." And she enjoys worship at Buncombe Street United Methodist Church, where she has served in several leadership roles over the years.
She is blessed with a remarkable memory, one that easily recants names of her grade-school teachers and Greenville High classmates. And her retention of numbers is so good that GSAH secretary Phyllis King calls her "a walking phone book."
That retention makes Uldrick keenly aware when students have made significant progress. "You can see it on her face -- she's almost mesmerized by what the student is doing," says Parris. "And she'll have tears in her eyes.
"She often took kids who, in the eyes of many, were destined to fail and encouraged them to excel," Parris says. "She always wanted them to have a goal and a vision, because she had one."
Uldrick says her approach to education was largely influenced by M.T. Anderson, her Greenville High principal as a student and for nine years as a teacher.
"He said, 'Plow deeply, work hard, and be patient,' " Uldrick says. The advice was especially relevant for a teacher whose visions and ambitions often exceeded the available funds. That made the persistent Uldrick, who calls herself "a patient impatient woman," also acquire a passion for fund-raising.
"I don't know of anybody who has done more for education in this state," says Sen. Verne Smith, who was among the first to contribute funds to Uldrick's music programs at Greer High School, where Uldrick taught before moving to Greenville High School.
"She's always been able to raise a tremendous amount of money from the private sector," says Smith. "And that's because she's an honest, hard worker who works late and starts early. She has tremendous stamina.
"People see her working hard and see the results in the children. She gives you a confidence that she can develop those young people into productive citizens," Smith says. "She's touched thousands in a positive way ... I'm going to hate to see her retire."
That retirement, 15 months away, already tugs at the heartstrings.
"Do I want to retire now? No," says Uldrick, 72. "But it's the right thing to do. I'll find something I can invest my life in."
Part of the retirement schedule will include more time with her husband, Marion, the retired owner of Uldrick Real-Estate Co. A patient at Campbell Veterans Nursing Home in Anderson, he's been limited by recent health problems.
"I've had the most supportive, caring husband anyone could ask for," says Uldrick. "Now, it's my turn to care for Marion as he has cared for me."
Future endeavors will likely include music, a love that has captured Uldrick's attention for as long as she can remember. She was barely walking when she gravitated to the sound of her grandmother's voice as it shared church hymns. She joined in the celebration that accompanied the cooking and not just on the easy tunes. Even before she knew "Jesus Loves Me," Uldrick learned, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."
That set the pattern for the next six decades, as Uldrick -- even when the mission seemed beyond reach -- tackled the tall tasks.
Today, from a practical office that overlooks Greenville's revitalized West End, Uldrick seems revitalized by the energy of 230 students. She talks about a pianist who has received a full music scholarship but will instead attend Duke University to pursue a medical career and another outstanding piano student who will attend Harvard.
"Our students may not go into the arts, but this is still a better curriculum for them than the traditional approach," Uldrick says. "For some students, the music will always be a way to express the human spirit in a way academia cannot."
Her office, decorated primarily with family photos, offers few hints of Uldrick's personal accomplishments. The Order of the Palmetto sits at her home, along with numerous civic awards. The office walls don't display her diplomas from Furman, the University of South Carolina and Columbia University in New York.
She admits that she liked her office setting more when, during the school's construction stage, it was located in the dormitory.
"I'd like to move it back," she says. "I got to know the children, big-time."
For Uldrick, that has always been the most rewarding part of the trip.