COLUMBIA — South Carolina Gov. Dick Riley was done with his work on President Bill Clinton's transition team as Clinton prepared for his first term in the White House, when Clinton offered his longtime friend a Cabinet job of his own.
Riley thought the reason Clinton was nominating him for education secretary was because he wanted to reward him for his work during the start up.
"It was not," Clinton said Monday at the University of South Carolina to celebrate the opening of Riley's political collection.
"It was because I believed that the future of the country depended on our ability to educate everyone," he said. "And I knew that he believed that ability is evenly distributed but opportunity is not, and that the first step to closing the gap is believing that it can be closed. And so he set to work."
Though the task proved difficult at times, Riley took it in stride and would go on to become the longest-serving education secretary in history and remains widely regarded as one of the most successful Cabinet officials of the 20th century.
"He made it look easy," Clinton said. "Always had a smile on his face, always treating people like they were people."
Riley's archives at USC's Thomas Cooper Library include thousands of artifacts, letters and photographs from his decades in public service, from campaign bumper stickers to a pair of boots he received as a gift from Texas Gov. Mark White.
The most recent item in the collection is a letter Clinton sent to Riley earlier this year for his 85th birthday. At the bottom of the typed note, Clinton added a handwritten addendum: "I hope to be like you when I grow up!"
First elected to the South Carolina House in 1962, Riley would go on to serve for ten years in the state Senate, eight years in the governor's office and another eight as Clinton's education secretary.
Riley told the crowd of around 650 at the University of South Carolina's alumni center, including Gov. Henry McMaster and other state leaders, he hopes the collection will inspire others, particularly young people, to pursue meaningful public service and avoid personal attacks.
"Politics can be a wonderful thing and it can be an unpleasant thing," Riley said. "But I hope they will see in this exhibit, which will be a tremendous exhibit, that you can be a politician and be into issues and not bringing people down."
Though he has retired from public service, Riley remains active in promoting education improvements in South Carolina and around the country.
Harkening back to his signature accomplishment as governor, the Education Improvement Act of 1984, Riley told reporters before the ceremony he would like to see similarly ambitious efforts undertaken today.
"It was a movement," Riley said. "I think we need another movement. And I would like to see that right now. Leaders in this state could really begin to plant the seeds for a movement to move South Carolina forward."