When Darla talks, South Carolinians should listen


She’s rich, smart and savvy, and generously philanthropic. In the global business world, she’s pretty much “been there, done that.” So for many reasons, when Darla Moore talks, folks listen.

She wowed the crowd last Friday at a Trident Tech fund-raiser luncheon, calling out South Carolina for its image “dichotomy,” a ballyhooed record for attracting business investments and new jobs, and a sorry record of overall public education performance.

In a drawly monotone, she was pointed and pithy. And, yes, she matter-of-factly uttered her “rat hole” confession to 300 community leaders gathered to raise money for Trident Tech and celebrate the Greater Charleston tourism industry’s honors as the world’s top tourism destination. Moore explained that it was after she and her husband committed $25 million in 1998 to the University of South Carolina business school that she began to understand the state’s education mediocre performance realities. It was then, she said, “I felt like I’d pretty much pissed $25 million down a rat hole.”

So Darla Moore likes her idioms, but it’s the “rat hole” reference — not the other word for “squander” — that primed her message. Her lurking “rat hole” is the very dichotomy she described, a systemic disconnect in statewide values of educational excellence and politically popular economic development initiatives.

Her speech was supposed to be a coaching message to the hospitality and tourism industry leadership, not a public policy and political critique. But it was all of that, and the policy message begs reflection.

Public leaders need not be guided solely by the mantra “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!”

Public education, once embraced as a non-negotiable performance imperative, can cure broader swaths of economic and social maladies.Another thought: Making jobs isn’t easy, but it registers nicely on voters as economic development. Formulating, financing and sustaining a world-class public education system is heavy-lifting in the political and public policy world and engages many inconvenient truths, like progressive education often requires higher tax revenues.

Her “rat hole” worries might persist, but Darla Moore, the Lake City native and USC graduate who earned her wealth and her tough-as-nails reputation the old-fashioned way, has never given up on her native state. Her philanthropy seems to knit the objectives she considers strategic imperatives — world-class education, world- class teachers, and incubation initiatives for rural development and small towns’ renewal.

In 2004, she donated another $45 million to the USC business school which now bears her name. The Moore school is especially highly regarded for its international business programs. Her $70 million total contribution reportedly is the largest private gift to a business school in the United States.

In 2003, she endowed $10 million for the Eugene T. Moore School of Education, in honor of her father, a 1949 Clemson graduate and former Lake City teacher, coach, and principal.

And along the way, Darla Moore founded the Palmetto Institute, a non-profit organization devoted to “increasing the wealth of every person in South Carolina.”

Last year, she gave $5 million to the USC McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research. We might say Darla Moore puts her words where her money is.

Friday’s program theme was about leveraging and retaining the hospitality industry’s supremacy. For any industry, it’s what you learn and how you perform after you get to the top that matters.

And good for the Greater Charleston’s hospitality industry leadership for avoiding the swelled-head syndrome and for doubling down on performance, even while enjoying its recent best-in-the-world ranking.

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Darla Moore encouraged the group to understand the values of destiny control and quality control, and the powers of “critical thinking” among every single employee. Workforce development and innovation, she declared, will generate the greatest value-added results.

And that brought the program to the fund-raising for the Trident Tech Foundation capital program.

Maverick Southern Kitchens founder Dick Elliott introduced Darla Moore and then followed her to the podium. He promptly pledged $100,000 to match other contributions from the hospitality industry, correctly noting Trident Tech’s important role in workforce development. And as she hurriedly left the ballroom, Darla Moore whispered her $100,000 pledge to Trident Tech Board Member Anita Zucker.

Darla Moore was a hit, so unfiltered and so genuine.

And it was another good day for the hospitality industry and Trident Tech.

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.

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