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Lois Rhame West - 1921-2014

Former S.C. first lady, Camden native passes away Monday

Posted: May 6, 2014 3:52 p.m.
Updated: May 7, 2014 5:00 a.m.

John Carl “Jack” West Jr. remembered his mother, Lois, as being strict while he was a child.

“She was the disciplinarian in the family,” Jack West said when asked what his late mother was like while he was growing up.

When told that others remembered her as a fun, energetic person, he agreed with that assessment as well.

“She was a pistol,” he said, and mentioned her devotion to the Brownies, Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts. “She led the Brownie and Girl Scout troops and was a Cub Scout den mother.”

Lois Rhame West died Monday night in Hilton Head at the age of 92.

Her son remembered that the house his mother grew up in stood where Phelps Auditorium did when Camden Junior High (later Camden Middle) School was built. Both she and her future husband, the late Gov. John Carl West Sr., graduated from Camden High School when it was located across the street next to Grace Episcopal Church.

As detailed in an October 2010 edition of the Chronicle-Independent, Lois West was her husband’s No. 1 partner, making them a political power couple. They opened up their home in the Charlotte-Thompson community for parties, both political and social. An online University of South Carolina (USC) exhibit on Gov. West noted that Lois West was, indeed, an active partner in his political career.

“You can either go willingly or be dragged kicking and screaming,” she told the university. “So, I figured I’d go gracefully, and I tried to help every way I could. It’s a hard life. It takes a lot of effort.”

Gov. West admitted in a separate interview that he consulted his wife often on political matters.

“She had an uncanny ability to sense how an idea or program would be perceived by the public,” he said.

Lois West maintained the family’s home while her husband worked on the S.C. Highway Commission, managed another man’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate, joined a committee to upgrade or replace Camden’s hospital, ran for -- and won -- a seat in the S.C. Senate, became lieutenant governor and then governor.

She would go with him to Saudi Arabia when her husband became U.S. ambassador to that country.

Jack West said his mother had her own influence during that diplomatic posting.

“In her own, quiet way, I think she advanced the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia -- in her own, unassuming way,” he said.

But Lois West had her own campaigns, primarily in the form of fitness and health. For 40 years, she volunteered with -- and for many years on the board of -- the national Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). She became the MDA’s first female president. In those circles, she was almost as well known as comedian Jerry Lewis, the face of the MDA on its many telethons.

“We used to call them ‘Lois and Jerry’s Kids,’” Jack West said of the MDA’s young beneficiaries. “I think she was the longest serving member on the board.”

Lois West also became the first married female Winthrop University graduate, in 1943, less than a year after marrying her husband.

“Dad was so young, his mother had to go up to sign the marriage certificate,” Jack West said. “And the administration made her live off campus with a professor’s family. After Dad died, we were going through some things and I found her college year book. Inside was a permission slip giving her a three-day pass to visit her husband.”

While at Winthrop, Lois West was a “stand-out” in field hockey, tennis and golf.

“She was very athletic,” Jack West acknowledged.

She earned a bachelor of science degree in physical education and went on to teach at USC to support her husband through law school, according to her biography on Winthrop’s website.

“While Mr. West was serving in WWII, Lois sold war bonds at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington (D.C.) and also conducted farm surveys,” the biography says.

It goes on to state that, in addition to her work with the MDA, Lois West’s civic contributions include serving as a trustee on the S.C. Museum Commission; president of the West Foundation, a scholarship named for her husband; and starting a horticulture and floriculture program at the Midlands Center in Columbia.

In the 1970s, she and Gov. West led the effort to make Winthrop a co-educational campus.

Winthrop also bestowed on Lois West an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1984. In 2007, the university opened the 137,000-square-foot Lois Rhame West Health, Physical Education and Wellness Center. According to its website, it houses academic space for the Winthrop’s health, physical education and sport management programs, but also contains a two-story climbing wall, four full-sized basketball courts, elevated running track, 8,000-square-foot weight room, 25-yeard swimming pool and four racquetball courts.

“She was very involved with fundraising for the university,” Jack West said.

He remembered that, when she lived in Camden, his mother would play golf at the Camden Country Club. He also said that she was a “very good tennis player” in high school.

One of Lois West’s best friends is Alice Ford.

“She had a thousand virtues, but the one I remember best is that she was fiercely loyal to family. She would do anything in the world for her family, friends and old associates she knew,” Ford said. “I also remember how unselfish she was in every respect. She seemed to put everyone else’s pleasure (above) her own.”

Ford called Lois West “fun-loving” and loved to hear a good joke.

“When she was in Saudi Arabia, gold was not too expensive, so she had some necklaces made that had some Arabic writing on theme that meant ‘muskrat’ and gave them out to close friends,” she said.

Ford said the group was called the “Muskrat Club.”

“We thought there were about 10 to 12 women in the group,” she said. “One time, I was on an elevator in a public building and I saw a woman wearing one of the necklaces, so I asked her if she was a muskrat. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said, ‘Lois West gave this to me.’ There may have been 50 women.”

Ford also played golf with her long-time friend, and Lois West would make an odd wager.

“We used to play golf in Hilton Head and every time I would get up to make a tee, she would bet me a beer a hole -- but she never touched it; she was allergic,” Ford said.

Jack West said the family had known for some time that his mother’s passing was likely to happen soon. Yet, he said, she was in good spirits on the day she died. He told her he was going to be seeing U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, who -- years ago -- had become the first African-American since Reconstruction to work on a South Carolina governor’s staff.

“I talked to her yesterday, and she asked me to go get a copy of the book and have Jim sign it. And I did,” Jack West said.

His mother lived with his sister, Shelton, in a “mother-in-law” wing and passed away at home.

“We should all be so lucky to live to be 92-plus,” he said.

A funeral service to celebrate Lois West’s life will take place Thursday at 2 p.m. at Bethesda Presbyterian Church with burial to follow in Forest Lawn Memorial Park. In addition to her son, Jack West, and daughter, Shelton Bosley, she is survived by four grandchildren, Alexander W. Bosley of Hilton Head, Peter Brice McKoy of Camden, Dr. Brodie E. McKoy of Charleston and Kenly M. Chivers of Camden; 11 great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews.

In addition to Gov. West, who passed away in 2004, Lois West is predeceased by a son, Douglas Allen West; daughter-in-law, Susan B. West; four brothers, Boykin W. Rhame, Robert L. Rhame, Walter A. Rhame and Edward L. Rhame; and a sister, Lenora R. Granade.

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