Virginia Uldrick hums, swaying slowly, her slightly hunched shoulders neatly tucked beneath a crisp, periwinkle suit adorned with a gold flower brooch. Her eyes are tilted skyward, her mouth fixed in a sly sort of smile that belies what memory might accompany the lilting notes.
The song is “Vissi d’arte,” and it is an aria from Act II of the Italian opera Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. In it, Floria Tosca, a famous singer, is having a difficult conversation about the fate of her lover as she struggles with the two great forces in her life. “Music and love, these I have lived for.” Uldrick translates of Tosca’s predicament. She resumes humming and musing for a few moments more.
As unfamiliar as it is to the untrained ear, the tune seems as much a part of Uldrick’s makeup as the contours of her face or the curve of her practiced hands. Perhaps because the same forces of love and music drove her into a lifelong line of work that continues to this day, as president emeritus of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. Perhaps because more than sixty years after she began a career in education, she has changed the destinies of hundreds, if not thousands of students, by inspiring them to perform and by providing a unique stage for those performances.
Or perhaps because without so much as a warm-up or a throat-clearing, this one-time aspiring opera singer’s voice, though soft, is still as clear and bright as a tuning fork—pitch perfect, smooth, and resonant.
“My mother taught me to try to love everything you do with a passion,” Uldrick recalls on this day, seated in a modest boardroom at the heart of the sprawling arts school campus she helped create.
“From an early age, I was always taught to look for things that are needed and that we do not already have,” Uldrick says. “There were always challenges put before me.”
The aria she hums is one of her favorites, she confesses. But unlike Tosca, music and love have not been opposing forces working against each other in Uldrick’s life. Her love of children, her passion for music: The two have been a singular magnetic pull, working in concert with her hallmark determination and optimism—in the classroom, in the boardroom, and at some of the highest levels of governance.
“I always knew I had to be passionate about what I was doing in the arts,” Uldrick says. “I am equally passionate in looking at a child’s value and what a child needs.”
The sum of her talents and passions has been a lifetime of giving back to an underserved artistic community across the state and beyond.
ENTER THE GAUNTLET
SCGSAH is as unique to the Southeast as it is to every student who has an opportunity to attend this public, residential high school, located in the heart of downtown Greenville. Not surprisingly, the story of Uldrick, its founder, is equally exceptional.
“From an early age, I was always taught to look for things that are needed and that we do not already have,” Ulrdick says. “There were always challenges put before me.”
There are few things Virginia Uldrick loves more than a good challenge. Take Carroll Campbell for instance. Not Governor Campbell, though the precocious boy would eventually ascend to teh state’s highest elected office.
Rather, Carroll Campbell, the ninth-grade music student who loved to speak but hated to sing. Uldrick asked him to stay afters school one day so that she could unwittingly ferry him to the Greenville Little Theatre. She placed him before the theatre’s director and asked if he had a place for the young man. Standing face to face with one another, neither man nor boy could say, “no.”
By then end of the year, Campbell had won the theatre’s highest award for acting. “The Academy,” Uldrick jests with some pride.
Many decades later, when it came time to ask the powers that be to fund and support a permanent arts school for the state’s students, it was Campbell—then governor—who provided it. In short order, the Governor’s School, which counted Uldrick as its first president, opened its doors and has since become an educational gem for South Carolina and art schools across the nation.
Much transpired in Uldrick’s life between the time that Campbell was a student and when he became governor. History tells the unlikely, albeit inspired, story.
Twenty-five years before the Governor’s School’s downtown campus was built and its year-round program opened, Virginia Uldrick, still a music teacher, had gotten behind developing the Greenville Fine Arts Center. The year was 1974, and the school was the first of its kind in South Carolina. It was really one of only a few in the country, and she was its first director.
But only a year after the Fine Arts Center was opened, in 1975, Uldrick already had set her sights highter. She went to then-governor Richard Riley, whom she counts as a friend and colleague, and started inquiring about having a governor’s school to serve the arts in South Carolina. “I went to him, and he told me, ‘If you take the children to the mountaintop, Virginia, they’ll never go back,'” Uldrick recalls. “He said if I would take the children to the mountaintop, he would agree to present it to the legislature.”
Fortunately, the both held up their end of the bargain.
Created by executive order of Governor Richard Riley in 1980, a five-week residential summer program was established to serve high school students pursuing the arts. It was held on the campus of Furman University, also Ulrdick’s undergraduate alma mater, and was the early iteration of the modern-day South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
The summer program was so successful under Uldrick’s leadership and with Riley’s support that, she says now, “How could it fail?” The program provided solid evidence that the state not only needed, but could find support for, year-round education with a focus on the arts. “We proved the point, and Dick Riley was there all the time,” Uldrick says.
After a decade and a half of summer programs and another year of hanging in political limbo, a bill was overwhelmingly approved by the state legislature in 1996 to create what we know today as the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, a public, residential high school for emerging artists. By then, Governor Campbell was in office, and he appointed a committee to study cost, enrollment, and accessibility to the school.
Communities across the state submitted proposals to bring the institution to their towns, and a plan developed by a group of business leaders from Greenville was selected. The old Furman University men’s campus—8.5 acres of land in downtown Greenville—was donated jointly by the city and Greenville County. The state set aside $12 million, and private fundraising campaign run by Mary Rainey Belser and Minor Mickel Shaw matched it. When more than $14.5 million was raised, construction on the Tuscan village-inspired campus was able to commence, and the school’s doors opened to its first class of juniors in 1999.
Today, the institution is the only fully accredited, residential, public arts high school in the country. Typically, every year each graduate is offered some level of financial assistance to continue his or her education, SCGSAH’s sutdents repeatedly earn accolades in writing, dance, drama, visual arts, music, and much more.
“There is no place in the country like this school,” says Dr. Bruce Halverson, who became the school’s president in 2007. “Every day, I have the opportunity to see students discover the depth and range of their talent and explore their passion for the arts . . . The Governor’s School is a jewel, not only for South Carolina, but for our country. All of us should be proud of this school, and celebrate it.”
“I have been a lifelong fan of Virginia Uldrick, and she is a person for whom I have tremendous respect . . . Her leadership and her many gifts have been an important asset to all of us.” —Richard W. Riley, former South Carolina governor and secretary of education under President Bill Clinton
THE BRIGHT SIDE
Spend a little time with Uldrick and you will hear that she has never had a bad teacher, though she’s had plenty of tough ones, forceful ones, frustrating ones. And she’s never had a poor student, only challenging ones.
Her optimism offers a window into how she’s managed to get so much done in a single lifetime of work. All with very humble beginnings. Uldrick graduated from Furman University with a degree in music education in 1950 and secured her first teaching job in Greenwood city schools that same year. Like many new graduates of the time, she did not have a car, so she rode her bike—a graduation gift from her mother—to and from work each day and in between in the various schools she served.
On rainy days she took a cab.
Since then, she has earned an MFA from the University of South Carolina. She has studied at Columbia University and the Peabody Conservatory and worked under world-renowned Hungarian musician Dr. Arpad Darazs. Despite all that she has achieved in her lifetime, it was those early years of service and the sacrifice of pursuing opera as a career that truly sealed her commitment to serving children and her passion for furthering the arts.
“It was the most learning part of my entire career,” Uldrick recalls. “I did not want to teach. i wanted to perform, but really you have to perform every day in the classroom to make sure the students are learning.
“I carried that with my my whole life, and my journey has been wonderful.”
Originally published November 2011.