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Former SC Governor, US Secretary of Education Dick Riley reflects on 90 years of service to South Carolina and the nation

At age 90, Dick Riley is still active in his Greenville law firm, and greets friends such as S.C. Public Radio's Tut Underwood.
Tut Underwood
SC Public Radio
At age 90, Dick Riley is still active in his Greenville law firm, and greets friends such as S.C. Public Radio's Tut Underwood.

Richard W. "Dick" Riley was South Carolina's first two-term governor and also served two terms as U.S. Secretary of Education.

Richard W. “Dick” Riley is possibly among the last statesmen South Carolina has produced. After serving in the South Carolina house and senate, he became the state’s first two-term governor before serving two terms as U.S. secretary of education under President Bill Clinton. He has received additional accolades and honors beyond these posts, as well.

Still active at his Greenville law firm, Riley recently turned 90, and took time to reflect on some of the highlights of his illustrious career, as well as issues of today that concern him.

Perhaps the crown jewel of his time as governor was the passage of the Education Improvement Act (EIA), which added a penny to the state sales tax, all of which went to public education. He remembered the excitement of the campaign for the act.

“The EIA… was part of a movement,” Riley recalled. “And you don’t have a movement with just one party. You have to get everybody involved. I had committees that had Democrats, Republicans, people who were to the right or left or the middle, that did not matter. And we had large rallies. And the next thing you know, it was moving.

“And everybody was into it,” he added. People on the street, everybody that had children or was interested in children, was into the EIA. And that to me was the most exciting thing I’ve ever been into in public life. And the results of it have been very good. The years after it were all improved a lot in every angle of public education.”

Riley thinks deeply about many issues, and in education, retaining teachers is an important one.

“It’s a problem. And it’s a big problem in kind of rural areas that are not populated and have money trouble,” said the former governor. “We’ve gotta have teachers that want to stay, that are anxious to stay, that are looking to the future. And to do that, they’ve got to have a legitimate pay amount, and also they have to be treated as professionals. I used to worry a lot about being a teacher. Does it elevate that person? It should.”

When Riley served as national secretary of education, he said his personal friendship with President Clinton helped him succeed.

“I had a close relationship with the President. There was a certain subtle competition among cabinet officers as to who gets the president’s attention. And he and I were close, close friends. We had similar states and similar problems. And when I would submit an issue to the White House for their support, it always came right back, ‘I support it 100 percent.’ And we got everything passed we really tried to get passed.”

Clinton’s faith in Riley gave him another opportunity to serve the country, as a possible nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. This time, however, Riley chose to pass.

“Bill Clinton liked my background, liked the fact that I was very much into the court system or whatever. So he told me to consider it,” Riley explained. “But those justices spend most of their time reading long briefs on very complex issues. Over and over and all day long. I’m kind of a people person. And I get more done working with people than I can reading long briefs. I decided I would do better good as Secretary of Education than in the Supreme Court. But that was a great honor just to be considered.”

Reaching a milestone in life such as turning 90 has caused Riley to give much thought to the world situation. He expressed some of his thoughts, as well as his chief hope for the future.

“You have to worry about Russia, you worry about China. Where we’re going with Ukraine and so forth. I support the Ukrainian people, I admire ‘em a lot. And boy, they’re brave souls, and they believe in their democracy and their country.

“So I guess if anything could happen, world peace would be my hope. And peace in the classroom or wherever you see violence take place.”

Another worry of Riley’s is the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US capitol, and its implications for the future of American democracy. Still, he remains optimistic because of the large number of good people he knows are out there across the nation and world.

“The idea of living 90 years and having thousands of friends, all across the world,” gives him pause and also amazes him, said Riley. But he is grateful for the life he has lived and the people he’s lived among and worked with. “I have probably more friends than anybody in the world,” he marveled. “That’s a wild statement,” he acknowledged with a laugh. “Anyhow, I love ‘em all.”

And considering Riley’s lifetime of service to the state - and the nation - it’s not hard to believe that South Carolina loves him back.


Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.