Long-time educator and retired National Guardsman Bill Rhodes was presented the state’s top civilian honor during a halftime ceremony at Friday night’s football game between Clinton and Chester at Wilder Stadium.
Rhodes, 86, who retired in 1997 as a sergeant major in the U.S. National Guard, has been an educator and a coach for more than 60 years in Laurens County School District 56.
“This means the world to me,” Rhodes said after receiving the honor from state Rep. Doug Gilliam alongside daughter Lawry Rhodes Sharp, colleagues and friends. “There was a lot of hard work and a lot of people who support (me). Because of all that support – that is why I have this.”
The Order of the Palmetto, which was established in 1971, is South Carolina’s highest civilian honor and is presented in recognition of extraordinary service, achievements and contributions at the national and state level. Past recipients of the award include late novelist Pat Conroy, civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark and Gov. Henry McMaster.
Rhodes, a Laurens County native, began teaching in District 56 in 1960 at Florida Street Junior High and also taught at then Bell Street Junior High and Clinton High School.
His career has outlasted both Florida Street and Bell Street schools.
“Coach Rhodes has been a living legacy for District 56 since I knew him as a student at Bell Street Junior High,” said District 56 Superintendent David O’Shields. “Then, he moved with me to Clinton High and was my ninth-grade civics teacher.”
O’Shields said Rhodes’ impact in District 56 has gone far beyond the classrooms.
“He’s been a steady hand and a father figure and a shoulder of support for innumerable people in the district,” O’Shields said. “I know there have been so many times where he slipped a few dollars into a hand or lifted somebody up. That’s what he’s always done. He’s lifted people up, but he’s also demanded accountability.”
Rhodes now works at Clinton High with food service and attendance. He can also be seen regularly working the gates at Red Devils basketball games.
In addition to his career in education, Rhodes rose from infantryman to the rank of sergeant major – the highest non-commissioned rank in the U.S. Army and National Guard before retiring from the U.S. National Guard after 42 years.
He also spent 28 years with the Laurens County Exchange Club, including seven as president.
The award presentation was unexpected until the day of the presentation, Rhodes said.
“They kept it a secret until (Friday) morning,” he said.