At the most recent meeting of the South Carolina State Board of Review of the National Register of Historic Places, I learned that a colleague, Elaine Harris, the mayor of Pacolet, South Carolina, had passed away at the end of May. It was a most unpleasant surprise.
I first met Mayor Harris during my graduate studies in 2005, when I was an intern with the South Carolina Mayors Institute for Community Design, a program of Clemson University and the South Carolina Arts Commission. The Mayors Institute, unfortunately now defunct, brought together professionals from a variety of fields, from historic preservation to horticulture, to provide planning and design consultation services to public officials in small South Carolina municipalities. As the mayor of Pacolet, a small former textile mill community in Spartanburg County, Mayor Harris was a star of the program, providing an example of what energetic and creative leadership can do to promote the revitalization of small towns across the state and around the country.
She describes the program in this short video:
The embrace I felt from Mayor Harris and her colleagues and fellow-citizens in Pacolet was warm, and their love for their town and its natural and environmental heritage was infectious. Although to my knowledge the project I worked on—a script for a film about Pacolet’s history meant for use in a new local museum—was never brought to fruition, working on it was a great experience. Through memorable site visits with Mayor Harris and others and a lot of research on my own, I learned a great deal about the area’s Native American and Revolutionary War history and about the cotton textile industry that transformed the Carolina Piedmont in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover I practiced what was for me a new style of professional writing, got to know what it was like to work for a client, and began to see clearly uses for my degree beyond classroom teaching and traditional scholarship.
In all my interactions I witnessed Mayor Harris demonstrate the best of public service and local leadership: working to build unity in a diverse population, practicing collaborative decision-making, and maintaining a vision of community social and economic development that went far beyond her term of office. Indeed, Mayor Harris’s vision of prosperity and sustainability for her town has extended beyond her lifetime. I hope it will continue to bear fine fruit in Pacolet—and serve as an example for other local officials—for many years to come.
Thank you, Mayor Harris, for your years of selfless service to your community—and for helping one young graduate student find his way along the path you traced.