SPARTANBURG S.C. (WSPA) – Mayor Jerome Rice didn’t want to be a politician.

His life started as a typical child with two parents and two siblings. As a child, Rice just wanted to go to school and play some football, but his world would change at the age of seven when he lost his father to gun violence.

There was no closure. One day, his father just didn’t come home. It was a trauma that he couldn’t process at the time, but it would eventually guide his decision to enter politics.

“Losing my dad at a young age, growing up in a single-mother household, I can’t say it was difficult because as I look around and notice some of my friends, we were all in the same boat. There were not many dads in the home, so we just learned to get by,” he said.

Those single parents contributed to raising not just their own children, but also the children who had lost a parent. Those single parents helped guide him during those early years, Rice said.

“It’s important for parents and mentors to show up not just for their own children, but our neighbors’ children, as well,” he said. 

It takes a village

Mayor Jerome Rice was born and raised on the northside of Spartanburg. He attended District Seven schools and later played college football at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. After a few years, he dropped out of college, but later finished his education at the University of South Carolina, Upstate.

“I think that kept me here in Spartanburg if I would have graduated from Wake during that time with my classmates and teammates, I probably would have moved down to Atlanta.”

After graduating he found a job at Mary H. Wright Elementary School. Mayor Rice’s former sixth-grade teacher, Dr. Judith Bazemore, was the principal of the school. Initially, he was interested in working as a substitute teacher, but Bazemore had other plans for him.

“She hired me on to be an office worker, to be in attendance clerk, to be a mentor to some young kids at Mary H. Wright during that time. And so I started working there. I was just looking to be a substitute teacher just to supplement a little income, but decided to take a full-time job from her,” he said.

The job involved mentoring students at the elementary school as well as the Boys and Girls Club. He had an opportunity to take a group of those children to hear Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, speak in Asheville, North Carolina.

“She talked about it was just great that we had African-Americans that were graduating from major universities and colleges from around the area; around the region, but they were all moving on to these major cities outside of South Carolina . . . but who would take care of home with everyone moving?”

The speech changed his life.

“That night I kind of got my purpose. I got my ‘why,’ and it was to help my home, Spartanburg. So from that point moving forward, I was more involved with young people,” he said.

“Who would take care of the home?”

Mayor Rice grew up with his mother Beatrice Rice, sister Jennifer and brother James on 18 Weldon Street. The house is no longer there, but it was rented from J.W. Funeral Home, the oldest black-owned funeral home in the city.

As a Spartanburg High School student, Mayor Rice described himself as a typical young man, who didn’t know much about politics. He just wanted to get an education and play a little football, Rice said.

At Mary H. Wright Elementary School, the students were 98% African-American, and probably 98-percent free and reduced lunch, he said. He found that he could be a mentor to some of the children who were struggling the most, due to his experience growing up under difficult circumstances without a father.

“They needed someone that was going to be there, someone that could point them in the right direction. And it wasn’t all of them. It was a few that was just misguided at that time that [Bazemore] thought that I could really play a role or a bigger role or help, you know, get them back on the right track,” he said.

As his passion for mentoring developed, Rice would later go on to coach football and basketball. He also participated in several mentorship programs that took kids to the mountains, feed the homeless and visit elderly residents. He hopes those lessons would make future mentors and leaders out of those children.

“Show them a way to give back to their home, to the place they call home,” he said.

Healing wounds

On March 10, 1994, Earnest Rice Sr., no relation to the mayor, was coaching a youth basketball team at the First Baptist Church in Spartanburg. Earnest was widely known as a community activist and leader, serving on Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors and redevelopment organizations. He served as a deacon at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

The basketball game that night was between Ebenezer Baptist and Mount Moriah Baptist Church. An argument broke out at some point, and after the game, shots were fired in the parking lot. Earnest tried to get his team safely inside a bus when he was struck by a bullet. The children were all safe.

“He was a mentor to a lot of young people here in Spartanburg,” Rice said. “[Earnest] was putting his kids on the bus and was shot. You know, he got right in the way of his team to try to protect them, and get them on the bus, and he was shot and killed that evening.”

It was Earnest’s son who would later influence Rice to enter politics. The future mayor had a chance to work with Earnest Rice Jr. while coaching Palmer High School’s football team. The opportunity to be a mentor to someone who lost his father due to similar circumstances gave Rice a chance to heal the wounds within himself, too.

“As you heal yourself, as you look back over it and you just kind of backtrack. And as I put my pieces together and, you know, it’s just what I go through with some things that I think about,” he said.

Earnest Rice Jr. later attended the mayor’s wedding as an usher and now works as an assistant principal at McCracken Middle School.

“And to see from when [his father passed away] to where Ernest Junior is now, it does me give me a great deal of pleasure to even to know Ernest Junior and just know how proud his father is of him,” he said.

A seat at the table

Rice said he didn’t grow up participating in student councils, and through his limited experience in school government, decided the political arena was not something that interested him. That changed after the death of Earnest Rice Sr. and his experience mentoring his son. He saw an opportunity to change the city for the better, Mayor Rice said.

“Once you start talking about change in your neighborhoods, you start talking about change on a particular side of town. And change in your city. And when you are having these conversations with your children about how to affect change, you have to show them that you are the change,” he said.

In 2009, Rice won a seat on the Spartanburg City Council, representing his home, northside, District 5.  

“We need someone that had a seat at the table, someone that grew up as a renter, you know, someone that’s a first-time homebuyer, and understand what it is that you have to go through in order to achieve some of these milestones so many of us take for granted, you know, your first home and a picket fence and all that,” he said. “A lot of us don’t have that. A lot of us don’t understand that. So I just want everyone to know that it is achievable and is possible even here in Spartanburg.”

Political Agenda

Mayor Rice, who was elected last year after serving on Spartanburg City Council for over a decade, said he’s taking on public health in his first year as the mayor. He plans to work on public safety the following year, improve public education during his third year, and work all three agendas during his fourth year.

He is focused overall on helping create equal opportunities for all of Spartanburg’s residents, he said.

As part of his public health initiative, Mayor Rice is promoting community walks in different neighborhoods in Spartanburg. This gives him an opportunity to promote exercise while trying to understand the needs of his constituents, he said.

Rice calls the event “Miles with the Mayor.” He plans to hold this event every third Saturday of each month throughout his tenure as mayor.

“I will be at some particular point in Spartanburg, having conversations with our residents about the things that we have going on in Spartanburg,” he said.

This Saturday, April 16, at 9 a.m. the mayor will start his walk at Oak Street Health in the South Church Street Plaza, directly across from Carver Middle School. He is encouraging residents to come out and participate in the walk.

To learn the locations of future “Miles with the Mayor” events, residents can call the city’s community relations department at 864-596-2052 or email the department at communityrelations@cityofspartanburg.org.

One of the most important public health issues Rice said he wants to correct is a dramatic difference in life expectancy that exists between neighborhoods in Spartanburg. One statistic showed that life expectancy in one district was almost 20 years shorter than in another one, he said.

“When we talk about public health and our physical health, that [imblance] shouldn’t be in a small city the size of Spartanburg. So we have to look not only at our physical health, but our mental health, the health of our communities, the health of the homeless, and our financial health.”

Rice said he is working with local health care providers to see how they can collaborate to address those issues, he said.

The Power of Role Models

One of Rice’s role models is also his wife Beatrice, whom he met in 1997. She now works as an assistant principal at Spartanburg High School. Together, they have two girls and two boys.

“My wife can find the good in garbage. So that’s something that some people won’t get; won’t understand. And I truly try to take that lead from her. I’m not always as patient, but we do try to find the good in every situation to make a better outcome,” he said.

Growing up in Spartanburg, there were role models that kids saw every day at school, people who took that role seriously and wanted to help young people move forward, Rice said.

“I can think of Bert Brown, who was the principal at my elementary school, and Mr. Joe Delaney, who was a principal at my elementary school as well.”

He also credits numerous previous mayors and current council members for being a voice for positive change. They were there before he entered politics, despite his being previously unaware of their work.

Former Spartanburg Mayor James Talley had at one time worked as a lifeguard at an outdoor pool at the Brotherhood Center that Rice frequented as a child.

“We didn’t know that as kids that our lifeguard would eventually be the mayor of our city,” he said.

When thinking back to his youth, Rice said he realized something important when he began to meet leaders in the community, before he found his passion for mentorship and politics.

“Just know that you have people that are here working for you, doing things for you. And when you find that purpose or when you find that ‘why,’ you will find those leaders and you will know that they’ve always been there,” he said.

If you know of other local leaders you would like us to profile, contact sdenherder@wspa.com.