"Good Enough for Whom?" A Remembrance of Founder Virginia Uldrick

Posted by Dr. Jennifer Thomas
Virginia Uldrick at the piano

The Governor's School's existence is a pretty remarkable thing. It’s an unlikely thing...this public residential high school for young artists and scholars. The history, the story of the founding of this school is in part, the story of an incredibly determined woman who would not take “no” for an answer: Virginia Uldrick. 

It’s also the story of arts educators around the state and of state and local leaders who kept working with her to get to “yes.” Yes, on a summer program at Furman and Converse in the 1980’s. Yes, if those intensive summer weeks are powerful, a full high school year could be transformative.

This unlikely experiment in public arts education opened in the fall of 1999 when the campus we now call home was only partially built. 

SCGSAH grand opening ribbon cutting
After Virginia retired in 2003, she was a regular on campus and at events. She has “advised” every President of this school, including Dr. Adderley, who has great stories about her. Her work continues. Even after her death, her words and her mission—our mission—still advise our continued work.

Virginia's legacy reminds us to lead by empowering and inspiring the school’s staff and faculty to do their best work.  She let people who knew what they were doing, do it. She worked as hard as any of the people around her. Harder than many of them.

She was a “visionary” but to remember her right we have to add “worker bee.” That might be one of the most remarkable things about her: her combination of vision and the practical work ethic it takes, the hours, nights and weekends it takes to accomplish anything good. 

Virginia was a class act, but she didn’t think she was better than anyone else. She enunciated with ferocity because she wanted to be heard: “Jennifer,” or “Children,” she’d say. She dressed for success—think jackets, pearls, pins, heels—because it was the uniform she wore into battle. She knew that manners are form. They provide form itself to our interactions with each other. They are not just niceties. They are not superficial. To be formal, as Virginia was, is to create a shape for the space you share with others. 

Let’s remember she started from not a lot. She went to public schools and was a public school music teacher, all operatic aspirations notwithstanding. Future Governors were in her choirs. She taught with passion to make her kids better musicians, which required better music and facilities, which required a budget. Her classroom became the county which became the state—the complicated SC she loved and improved so much. 

Virginia could and did work well with people of all walks and stations, of all political persuasions. How did she vote? She’d just cock her head slightly and gleam a mischievous smile. She could—and she did—work successfully with whomever was in office or in charge of the committee she needed to sway next.

Mediocrity was Virginia’s archenemy. I once told her something was “good enough.” I was tired. She looked at me for a very long time before she said, “Good enough for whom, Jennifer?” Yes ma’am. And she didn’t mean herself, the Boss, the Board. She meant you. She meant students. We had to be better than okay so our students would be, too. Excellence was her watchword, but it wasn’t an empty slogan. It was palpable. It was possible. For kids from SC to be as good as any kids from anywhere, ever. 

So...her legacy is in our classrooms and studios, and it’s national and global in a network of several generations of Govies. We are all standing on the narrow, but strong, shoulders of this giant of an educator that was Virginia Uldrick.

She believed she could, so she did. So do we. So are we: living out the story she started as we help South Carolina’s young artists grow into and live out their fullest potential.