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Amy McLester, 1933-2017

‘A pioneer for women in education’

Posted: October 12, 2017 4:52 p.m.
Updated: October 13, 2017 1:00 a.m.
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Amy McLester

Amy J. McLester is being remembered as a pioneer for women in education and a friend to the women she inspired.

McLester passed away recently at the age of 83 having left behind a legacy that began being nurtured more than 40 years ago.

Laura Jones actually had a connection to Amy Johnson before they even met in 1960. They pursued their graduate studies together at South Carolina State University (SCSU), several years before Johnson would move to Camden, meet Thomas E. “Daddy Mac” McLester and marry him in 1964.

“I knew Amy’s parents (Nondrus and Christine Chavous Johnson), and my husband was from Saluda,” Jones said. “His aunt lived with her parents in Aiken and she was teaching in Aiken County.”

She said after realizing the connection, they became very close and remained friends all their lives.

In Kershaw County, McLester and Jones taught at St. Matthew Elementary School down Black River Road outside of Camden. When South Carolina schools integrated, Jones went to work at Midway and Antioch schools while McLester was assigned to Lugoff Elementary School.

Several years later, they both became “human potential development specialists.”

“We would work with teachers and help them find out what their students’ strengths and weaknesses were and what kind of things they needed to do to work with the children,” Jones said.

When they went to teacher conferences, they would travel and room together, she said. Jones described McLester as a “very thorough person” who was also artistic and very creative.

“I have a lot of little things that she did in my home,” she said.

As a teacher and principal, Jones said McLester could be very stern with students, but managed to get along with teachers and students to help them do their best to guide those same students.

“She was very kind as an individual,” Jones said. “Nobody could ever get her upset; she was very easy going.”

Even before, but certainly after, their respective retirements in the 1980s, Jones and McLester did a lot of things together. They shared a babysitter and were part of the same social clubs and played in card groups together. Jones counted bridge and bonanza among the games they played and were both members of the Florentine Garden Club.

“She encouraged me to join and was our treasurer. We shared flowers and that kind of thing,” Jones said, adding that they were both members at Camden First United Methodist Church where McLester’s funeral was held.

One of McLester’s other long-time friends is Camden Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford. They, too, would travel and room together to conferences, working together as part of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority for college-educated African-American women.

The two women were so close that, according to Drakeford, McLester set her up to be a speaker at her funeral several months in advance.

“She was always encouraging,” Drakeford said. “She was a cluster coordinator for Alpha Kappa Alpha for four years before me. She was always with me. And she was always mentoring young women, always trying to prepare them for leadership roles in the sorority.”

Drakeford said she was very aware of McLester’s impact on young teachers.

“Many of them have told me that if not for her, they would never have become teachers in Kershaw County,” she said.

Drakeford and McLester were also members of the Order of Eastern Stars, but, more than that, they were friends, sharing Christmas and birthday celebrations.

“When I was preparing to speak at her funeral, I thought to myself, ‘How do you cram 30 years of friendship into three or four minutes,” Drakeford said. “And then, it was amazing, Friday morning it hit me: My definition of a friend was her. She had sent me a birthday card early this year that I will always keep -- it talked all about friendship.”

Like McLester, Maude Cooper is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha and Camden First United Methodist Church. Cooper said she met McLester 25 years ago when she first moved to Camden.

“I visited the church and when she heard I was part of the sorority, she came down the aisle and introduced herself as my ‘sister’ and said, ‘I’m going to call you, so remember my name because I’m going to pick you up and take you to the sorority meeting.’”

Cooper called McLester a “devoted and passionate” sorority sister and friend.

“She was always willing to share her God-given gifts if it would help the community.  The members sought her advice.”

Cooper also said she and McLester served on their church’s staff-parish relations committee.

“She was an outstanding member, showing strong leadership. She was diligent, supportive and supportive,” Cooper said, adding, “She was loved and respected by all the members in the church and sorority.”

Another friend as well as a fellow educator is Rose Sheheen, currently the interim executive director of the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County.

“Amy was a very soft-spoken leader. She was a pioneer for women in education,” Sheheen said, who once served as the principal of Blaney Elementary School. “When I first became principal, there was just Amy, myself, Mary Katherine Norwood and Mary Jones. She was also one of the founders of the Alpha Psi chapter of the Alpha Delta Kappa Sorority.”

Alpha Delta Kappa is an honorary society for women educators. McLester joined while a student at Allen University in 1952 and remained a member for the remainder of her life.

“Amy always did everything in a lovely way, but she was efficient, direct and got things done. She had to be very skillful, being both black and a woman. She was very frank and honest, but in a very refined way -- you knew where she stood,” Sheheen said.

She called McLester a friend, but also a model to be emulated.

“We all looked at her and saw how to proceed,” Sheheen said.

Sheheen had mentioned Mary Jones, McLester’s immediate predecessor as principal at Lugoff Elementary. It was she who pushed for McLester’s elevation to be principal when she became director of instruction for the Kershaw County School District.

“I met Amy when I was the curriculum coordinator and she was a 1st Grade teacher,” Mary Jones said, adding that she introduced the concept of team teaching at the time, with McLester as one of the teachers on the 1st Grade team.

When McLester became a human potential development coordinator, she and Mary Jones began meeting on a daily basis.

“We would talk about what each student needed and by the end of the school year, there was a lot of camaraderie and collaboration,” she said. “I had watched Amy teaching kids and I thought she would make a wonderful assistant principal.”

There was a problem, though: Lugoff Elementary didn’t quite have 600 students and, therefore, didn’t qualify for an assistant principal position. Mary Jones gave her some of the responsibilities, anyway.

“Later, I was ready for a raise and had to go before the school board. I told them I needed help, and Amy became assistant principal,” she said.

They worked together that summer to determine what each of their responsibilities would be. One of the programs they came up with was a parent volunteer program where parents would come into the school to assist students.

“We had minority men and DuPonters,” Mary Jones said, referring to employees from the Lugoff plant.

Prior to her rise to the district office, Mary Jones was the only female principal in the county.

“I was at a board meeting to recommend teachers for the coming year,” she said. “The chairman told me, ‘I have good news and bad news.’ ‘What’s the bad news?’ ‘You’re fired as principal of Lugoff Elementary.’ I said, ‘OK, what’s the good news?’ ‘You’re being hired as director of instruction.’”

She already knew she wanted McLester to replace her as principal.

“I remember my daughter once told me that when you climb up the ladder, don’t forget to look back down and help bring others up after you. I had a gut feeling that (McLester) needed to run that school. I made a ‘suggestion’ that she be considered. I told them she was qualified, certified and needed an opportunity,” Mary Jones said. “She got the job.”

Mary Jones said she had aspirations to move up at the district, but wanted to make sure others came up after her.

“Amy was my first (principal), so it was special. I always felt like if you don’t open the door for others, then it shouldn’t be opened for you. Amy felt the same way,” she said.

From a personal standpoint, McLester and Mary Jones connected as the mothers of young children. They would talk about raising their children. That connection blossomed into something more than mere friendship and went beyond just the two of them.

“(They) treated me like family. They came over to my house to eat; I went over to her house for dinner. We had the kind of relationship that only comes around once in a while,” Mary Jones said. “I went to visit Amy in the hospital after she went in and she was sleeping. I went in and said, ‘Now, Amy, wake up, we’ve got work to do.’ And she opened her eyes, looked at me and said, ‘Mary, Mary, Mary.’ You have to appreciate the people in your life, love them and tell them you love them. I got to tell Amy I loved her. She was more like a sister to me.”

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