Lois Rhame West, a Camden native, Winthrop University alumna and a longtime advocate for wellness, physical fitness and health care policy, died Tuesday at age 92.
“An educator and advocate for healthy living, Lois West served South Carolina well beyond her capacity as first lady,” Gov. Nikki Haley said in a statement. “Her great love for and commitment to education and to South Carolina as a whole will be missed, and Michael and I ask the people of our state to join us in keeping the West family in our thoughts and prayers.”
The Lois Rhame West Health, Physical Education and Wellness Center on the Winthrop campus is named for the wife of the late Gov. John C. West, who also was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
“There is no doubt that Lois left this world better than she found it in ways that extend beyond her service as first lady,” former Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio said. “As a partner in service to the United States when Gov. West was ambassador to Saudi Arabia, she exemplified to her host nation all the good that can come from the recognition and advancement of women.
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“Throughout her life, her dedication to wellness and physical education, plus her example of service beyond self, made her an impressive role model.”
John C. West appointed now-U.S. Rep. James Clyburn,a Columbia Democrat, as the state’s human affairs commissioner in 1974, making him the first African-American adviser to a Palmetto State governor.
“I am deeply saddened by the sudden passing of my dear friend, Lois West,” Clyburn said in a press release Tuesday. “She was a bright light in the governor’s life – both sharp and sincere.
“Her personality and graciousness were undeniable, and she will surely be missed.”
Lois West graduated with a degree in physical education from Winthrop in 1943 and was a stand-out athlete in field hockey, tennis and golf, according to her Winthrop biography. She also was the first student at Winthrop – once an all-women’s college – to graduate after she married.
West went on to teach at the University of South Carolina while her husband completed law school. She was active in his campaigns for governor, and made physical education her focus during her years as first lady, 1971-75.
West also was a 40-year member of the board of directors of the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America, serving two terms as its chairwoman, the first woman to do so.
West and her family were among Winthrop’s first major donors, starting the Lois Rhame West Scholars program in the mid-1980s to provide full scholarships to S.C. residents. She also was co-chairwoman of Winthrop’s first capital campaign, raising more than $30 million and helping pay for scholarships, improving academic programs and providing more research opportunities for the faculty.
“While it might be considered unusual today,” DiGiorgio said, “she worked across partisan divides for important causes, joining the late Gov. Carroll Campbell in co-chairing Winthrop’s first-ever capital campaign. She worked for other causes, too, and that’s what made her part of America’s ‘greatest generation.’
“At the same time, she had a wonderful sense of humor and could tell a political story with grace, wit and a constant twinkle in her eye that made spending time with her a joy.”