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SC city's first female mayor, with a signature style, dies

Betty Jo Rhea
FILE - Betty Jo Rhea

The first female mayor of Rock Hill, who was known as a civic booster who was instrumental in building its premier recreational complex and other infrastructure, has died. Elizabeth Josephine "Betty Jo" Dunlap Rhea died Monday. She was 91.

Rhea was mayor from 1986 to 1997, leading the city through growth and development of new industries after the region's textile mills closed, The Herald reported.

Mayor John Gettys, the city's current leader, said in a statement that Rhea's vision for the city has been a benefit for all its residents and visitors.

"Betty Jo Rhea blazed a trail in Rock Hill. Her enthusiasm and work ethic led Rock Hill to rebound following the demise of the textile industry," Gettys noted. "Her push to build Cherry Park, the foundation of sports tourism, along with the foresight to diversify Rock Hill's economy has led to our ongoing growth. Her work will never be forgotten, and neither will her positive devotion to her hometown."

While she was mayor, Rhea oversaw the implementation of the long-term strategic plan, known as "Empowering the Vision," which focused on development in several areas, including business, arts and culture, parks and historic preservation. That program served as the precursor for the city's current development plans, Gettys said.

"She created that template for how we bring good change to a community that's sustainable and includes the people of Rock Hill in the conversation," he said.

Rhea's legacy is all over Rock Hill, which is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Charlotte, North Carolina, Gettys added.

"Everything in Rock Hill right now — downtown, sports tourism, job creation, the revenue that we see come in, our economic boom — you got to trace it all back to Betty Jo and her leadership," he said. "She was fortunate enough to see the results of her vision and her hard work over the years."

Rhea, who also served on the city's recreation commission and was elected to city council in 1978, was married to James Dunlap Rhea Jr. for 57 years until he died in 2007. The couple had three children — James, Catherine, and John.

John Rhea said his mother believed her life's work was to lift up all the people of Rock Hill and help others live rich lives of dignity and prosperity.

"In our house, we always joked that the city of Rock Hill was like my mother's fourth child," he said. "It was a maternal love, a deep caring for all people in the community. She loved Rock Hill and she loved its people."

Rhea was an inspiration and she did it with a classic Southern style that will never be forgotten, said Christi Cox, the first woman chair of the York County Council.

Rhea had a collection of signature scarves she wore around her neck with a style and class that was known from Rock Hill to Charleston in all the halls of power, she said.

"Mayor Betty Jo Rhea was the epitome of Southern charm and grace," Cox said. "With many close family members working at the city, I grew up with a front row seat witnessing her efforts in the community. She adored her family, loved her community, and exemplified what it means to be a servant leader. Every chance she had, she built up those around her, and her trailblazing efforts as the first female mayor of Rock Hill inspired many, including me, to serve our community."

State Rep. John King, D-York County, said Rhea championed equal rights for all and was a strong supporter of civil rights.

"Her service to our community paved the way for advances to all people that future generations will enjoy," said King, the only Black member of the York County legislative delegation. "I salute her service. The loss of Betty Jo Rhea is a tremendous loss to all in our community."

A funeral date has not yet been set.